Tesla’s Powerwall smart home based energy storage device will go on sale in the United States later this year, and the company has suggested it will roll out the product internationally some time next year. Germany, for example, is seen as a key market for the product because it has among the highest take-up of solar energy in the world, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, said.
Tesla's impact on the energy storage market will be closely watched in Brussels, where the European Commission called for an overhaul of Europe’s ageing electricity grid networks. Unveiling its Energy Union plans in February, the Commission said future grids "will take into account cross-border flows, variable renewable production, demand response and storage possibilities".
Energy storage research projects are eligible for financing under the EU's €80 billion Horizon 2020 research programme. Some are already being rolled out across Europe, with one in Ireland involving a motor-generated flywheel harnessing kinetic energy, catching media attention recently.
Currently in Europe, SolarEdge and Austrian company Fronius are the only approved inverter partners for the household version of Tesla’s stationary storage venture. However the US electric car manufacturer is looking for others, the company revealed when hosting the media launch of the storage range at the end of April. Similarly, while SolarEdge has prepared its system to be compatible with Powerwall batteries, SolarEdge’s Lior Handelsman said the Israeli company would also make it ready for other batteries in the near future.
“What we’ve done in joint development with Tesla is that their battery can tie into our inverter system, for European systems, practically as is”, Handelsman said. “There’s a small interface box that is very simple, and you can connect the battery to any SolarEdge inverter, including ones that are already installed”.
There has been some speculation as to exactly when the batteries will become commercially available in Euprope, with Tesla only really saying that Powerwall will be available in “selected markets” by the end of this year. Handelsman said that while he would not give an exact date either, customers buying SolarEdge inverters today were doing so on the understanding that the Tesla battery will be made available to add to their systems, including retrofits for customers acquired since the Powerwall’s arrival was announced, within six months.
According to Handelsman, SolarEdge worked closely with Tesla for around 10 months ahead of the launch. And, along with the European release dates, he was also not willing, or perhaps able, to divulge was the recipe behind Tesla’s low prices.
“So Tesla obviously did something… what’s the secret sauce? I can’t comment on that” stated Handelsman. “Definitely they threw the entire market into turmoil because for everyone here; the benchmark was €1000 (US$1,138) per kWh, then suddenly Tesla came along and said, no the benchmark is €400 per kWh, deal with it!”.
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Initially, the energy management system will be more relevant to markets in the EU such as Germany, where reduced feed-in tariffs (FiTs) for solar have made self-consumption of on-site generated power the biggest economic driver for households to use PV systems. Most of the US (with a handful of notable exceptions) will be marketed to initially on the basis of providing backup, as net metering policies reward PV owners for feeding their power into the grid rather than using it themselves. “Energy management is more relevant in Europe. For specific places like the Hawaiian market where the grid is congested, reducing feed-in and increasing self-consumption is important but in most of the US market it’s all about backup”, Handelsman said.
Away from Europe and the developed world, Powerwalls would let developing countries “leapfrog” straight to a solar-plus-storage electricity system, Elon Musk explained, and the 100-kWh utility-scale Powerpack version would have a worldwide historical effect. Just 160 million Powerpacks would suffice to “transition” the United States to “sustainable energy,” he said, adding, “With 900 million [Powerpacks] you can make all the electricity generation in the world renewable and primarily solar”.
Does all the messianic talk of battery-powered “disruption” and solar triumphalism really add up? In short, no, probably not. For all their “incredible” price reductions, Tesla’s Powerpacks are still too weak and expensive to come even within touching distance of either a reliable power supply or an off-grid revolution.
On cost, the average residential retail electricity prices in the US are $0.12 per kWh, while electricity from Tesla’s Powerwall on paired rooftop solar is projected to cost 30 c/kWh or more. This is backed up by the fact that 80% of pre-orders for Tesla’s batteries are for the utility-scale Powerpack, not the residential Powerwall, battery storage will likely benefit large base-load power plants (on grid) more than solar enabled homeowners.
It seems unlikely that the situation will be significantly different in Europe or the rest of the world. However, the growth of Tesla and their competitors should lead to developments in battery storage that might truely solve the problems of integrating unreliable wind and solar power into the electricity system.