By Gary Norman
As Elon Musk fanboys and detractors alike stand in awe of the irrefutable success of the Falcon Heavy launch, it’s easy for a Mars-bound Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) Roadster to eclipse what is arguably a terrestrial game changer. What began at first glance as a publicly bullish display of bravado and hyperbole once again played out as proof of Tesla’s resourcefulness and proficiency.
Perhaps in jealous defense of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s accusationthat renewable energy was to blame for blackouts and power outages following a severe storm in South Australia in 2016, Lyndon Rive, head of Tesla’s battery division, claimed he could solve Australia’s domestic energy supply problems within 100 days with construction of a massive cluster of Tesla Powerpack battery systems — a claim that was quickly backed up by Elon Musk’s bet that should the deadline be missed, the batteries would be installed for free.
Construction was completed well within the deadline, providing South Australia with reliable storage for renewable energy produced by the wind farm at Hornsdale, and immediately demonstrating the advances in the manufacture of batteries as well as the viability of projects of this scale. And their efficacy? This was demonstrated in two separate incidents at the Loy Yang power station that resulted in a 560MW and 353MW loss in power respectively. In both incidents, the battery system at Hornsdale managed to inject enough power back into the grid to keep the system under control, minimizing loss of power to consumers. On the face of things, this appears to be an efficient solution for the energy sector — a clean method for Australia to provide backup for, and ultimately to wean itself off its carbon-heavy coal, oil and gas plants, which would enable it to meet its target of a 26–28 percent reduction on 2005 levels of carbon production by 2030. However, upon closer examination, we can see that while it is indeed a great leap forward, there’s still a long way to go to meet that goal. The battery pack did stabilize the power grid, but its output was not sustainable in the long term, and needed to be bailed out itself with a traditional coal plant at a nearby power station.
So should we conclude that it’s a failed experiment? An interesting yet ultimately ineffective method of augmenting the inherently unreliable energy supply of renewables? Not when we consider the fact that its remit is not to assist in the way that it did, but to provide services on a much smaller scale. The fact that it did manage to inject a sufficient jolt of energy to ameliorate any disruption is in fact testament to its potential in such situations.
As the world moves further away from reliance on fossil fuels, development in renewables is vital, and indeed ongoing. As the technology and efficiency improves, the one thing that remains out of our control is availability. We cannot ensure that the sun always shines or that the wind keeps blowing, but what we can do is perfect a system of storing the energy that is produced. In doing so, we can ensure that clean energy is not just pollution free, but also reliable and consistent. Tesla’s implementation of its Powerpack system in Horndale is a solid step toward this end — so where do we go from here? The effectiveness of the Powerpack system in setups like Hornsdale has clearly impressed, with a project underway in Victoria, and another even larger project planned in Queensland. Considering an estimated cost of $50 million, it’s clear that Australia has committed itself to sizeable investment in this system, which also reflects well on its commitment to renewable energy. The Australian sector isn’t alone in its enthusiasm. France, the Hawaiian island of Kauai and the island of Ta’u already have systems in place to offset to demands of the power grid, and New Zealand and Southern California both have projects underway.
There’s nothing to suggest that the momentum will stop there. The impressive strides in this technology suggest that improvements in capacity, efficiency and durability are inevitable, which can only bolster the alliance of battery packs and renewable energy’s effectiveness. We’re certainly a long way from breaking free of our reliance on fossil fuels, but now we finally have the emergence of a viable alternative.