The iPod of power?

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

There has been a tremendous amount of buzz around the recent unveiling of Elon Musk’s Tesla Powerwall, and even if the product does not completely live up to the hype it has already changed the debate on power management in the grid. Once focused on grid-level solutions, the discussion of energy storage in a Smart Grid has now expanded to the home. This brings to mind the disruption in the marketplace that occurred when the iPod was presented to the public over a decade ago.

Both the Powerwall and the iPod entered a marketplace that already had several competitors using similar technology. A variety of MP3 players with a collection of features existed in abundance when the iPod was introduced, as the many naysayers at the time were quick to point out. They wondered aloud why anyone would buy a simple music player at a higher price point when cheaper devices with more functionality existed. The same situation exists today with the Powerwall, as anyone can put battery backup in their home, business, or community without having to buy Tesla’s device.

What the iPod disparagers forgot then and the Powerwall detractors forget now is that simple and sure is a powerful combination in the consumer marketplace. By providing a product with a near-zero learning curve and a supporting infrastructure to ensure reliable and predictable performance, the iPod was able to leapfrog over every other product offering in the space. The Powerwall promises to deliver the same mainstream turnkey appeal in an application space that is still largely a mystery to the general public.

The Powerwall consists of Tesla’s lithium-ion battery pack, liquid thermal control system, and software that receives dispatch commands from a solar inverter, and currently comes in 10kWh weekly cycle and 7kWh daily cycle models. Multiple batteries may be installed together for homes with greater energy need, up to 90 kWh total for the 10 kWh battery and 63 kWh total for the 7 kWh battery. 

The fact that the inverter is not included is not the barrier to adoption the cynics believe it to be. Due to technical and thermal constraints it is better to separate the two systems, and any battery storage solution that includes the inverter will lock itself into a static topology in an application space that is currently under active development. Separating the two gives more flexibility to the system in both deployment and upgrades.

The virtualization of power in the grid is already under development at higher levels in the grid, but the Powerwall changes the playing field significantly. Just as the iPod underscored the importance of core functionality in consumer electronics, the Powerwall is poised to change the debate on how energy is managed in a grid from the bottom up. Now that Tesla has shown that a consumer-oriented power solution can be a serious challenger to how the Smart Grid will develop, we will certainly see a wave of similar products targeting consumer-level power. This alone would be a major change in how we view the way we use and manage power, and it is a welcome addition to the discussion.