12 June 2015 14:09:01 IST

Elon Musk: Inventive dazzler

Elon Musk

Poster boy of the tech world underlines importance of energy storage with Powerwall

I guess you have heard of Elon Musk. Those of you who haven’t, please get to know him. I’d urge you to keep a poster of the guy in your rooms, alongside Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan or whoever else you admire. This Elon Musk is truly a wonder. To me, he is the Sunny Leone of the business world. Not a shade less dazzling, I mean.

Imagine! When he was only 31, he started a rocket company. Yes, a company that produced rockets — real rockets, for NASA’s use. Before that he starting a email-based payment company, X.com, made a few millions and invested them to co-found a company that is a household name today — PayPal. With the fortune he made in PayPay, he founded SpaceX, in June 2002.

Within six years, SpaceX got a huge, $1.8-billion contract from NASA, for sending NASA’s satellites to space on SpaceX’s Falcon rockets. SpaceX is today very close to building the world’s most powerful rocket yet, Falcon Heavy. Space is a very complex — our own Indian Space Research Organisation, after 45 years, is a dwarf in the global space business. How did Elon Musk crack it in just six years, is something I’d like you to research and find out.

Musk is also the Chairman of one of the larger solar companies in the world, called SolarCity.

This article is not specifically about Musk or SpaceX. It is about what he did recently, and what it signifies. I’m sure those of you who are familiar with Musk associate him with his electric vehicles company, Tesla. The story of Tesla Motors is another interesting case study, no less than SpaceX, and I’ll leave it to you to research into it.

In May, Tesla unveiled a new product. A battery, that would store large amounts of electricity. The company calls it Powerwall. Powerwall made the world sit up and take notice. Why? Powerwall was a much bigger, more efficient and therefore cheapest in terms of life-time costs.

Energy storage

But the Powerwall launch did something else too. It underlined to the world — perhaps because it was a product of a company of the business world’s poster boy — the importance of energy storage. Energy storage’s importance and need had been noted even earlier, but Powerwall brought it to the centre stage and focused a light on it.

Suddenly, everybody is talking ‘storage’. So, let us also talk about it. Energy storage is the upcoming big thing in the world, something that the students ought to know. As I discussed in the previous sections, the chain of issues goes like this: the world’s climate is changing, which is very destructive, hence there is a need to stop using dirty fuels like coal and oil (why, even gas) and move to clean fuels like hydro, wind, solar and ocean waves.

But these renewable energy sources are temperamental — they are unpredictable. Hydro is less so, but wind and solar, which are today the biggest two renewable energy sources, are very fickle in generating electricity. Wind blows, there is electricity, wind stops, zilch. Likewise, for the sun. A cloud passes across, and generation dips. Now, this kind of a thing is very bad for the grid and the users.

But since you can’t get away from renewable energy, you need to find a way to handle its fickleness. What is the best way to do that? Bingo: storage! If you could keep electricity in a box, when the wind and generation drops, you release power from the box and balance out the fall.

Tricky, inefficient

Storing electricity is a very tricky thing, also very inefficient — you get back only a small portion of what you put into the box. Would you like it if you could take out only Rs 20 out of every Rs 100 you put into the moneybox? The new box called Powerwall improved things, but there is a long way to go. And so the world, led by guys like Elon Musk, is grappling with various methods of storing energy (electricity).

As of today, the best way to store electricity is water. You impound river water in a dam, you actually store energy (potential energy). Then you release the water in tubes and make it hit the turbines — you generate electricity. But hydro electric projects are typically classified under ‘generation’ and not storage.

There is, however, another way of storing electricity with water. The demand for electricity is never even throughout the day. During the nights, the demand is typically low and at such times, you can buy electricity cheaper. (In India, we as individuals do not buy electricity at time-of-day rates, but companies do.)

If you buy electricity when it is cheap, you can use it to pump water into a huge tank kept at a certain height. Effectively, you convert electric energy into potential energy. Then, later, when the price of electricity is higher you reverse the process — let the water down, produce electricity. This is called ‘pumped storage’ and there are a few such plants in India.

The world over, it is estimated that there is 145,000 MW of electricity storage capacity — 97 per cent of it is ‘pumped storage’. This is ‘large-scale’ energy storage — does not include stuff like car batteries or home inverters.

But, pumped storage is not always possible, and is typically a big-ticket project —obviously. I mean, you can’t have a ‘pumped storage’ on the terrace of your house, right?

New storage tech

Today, new technologies are emerging to store electricity and an early acquaintance with them will stand you in a good stead in the long run. Here are some of them, briefly:

Batteries : more and more efficient batteries are coming into the market. Earlier, there were lead-acid batteries, like the ones we have in our cars. Today, the buzz is around ‘lithium-ion batteries’, which are more efficient than the lead-acid. Powerwall is a lithium-ion battery.

Coming into the market are things called ‘flow batteries’, that work on the principle of ion-exchange. Let us not go into the science of it now—suffice to know they are more efficient and are gaining acceptance in solar farms. Oh, they are not small. You can’t have a flow battery in your mobile phone.

Fuel cells : Though known to mankind for nearly two centuries, ‘fuel cells’ is slowly becoming an in-thing. It uses hydrogen and oxygen, to produce electricity.

Some solar thermal power plants use molten salts to store energy. Salts (not what we use in cooking) absorb heat and retain them for a very long time.

The International Energy Agency says the energy storage market is growing very fast. One report (of ‘AES Storage’) estimates that the storage devices worth 130 GW would be manufactured and delivered by 2024, which is almost double of the standing capacity today.

If I were entering the job market in a few years, I’d draw up a list of energy storage companies and keep a sharp eye on what they are doing.