On Thursday night the eyes of a chunk of the nation were on the headquarters of Tesla, where founder Elon Musk delivered a long-hyped product announcement. As all the buzz and leaks suggested, the company unveiled a new home-based battery that can store electricity and serve as a backup generator.
From 30,000 feet, that doesn’t sound that exciting. Batteries aren’t exactly a new technology. Lots of other companies make industrial-strength batteries. Home-based generators are neither sexy nor rare. But the frisson surrounding the announcement speaks to a larger point about Tesla—one that many of its critics don’t seem to grasp, and one that helps explain why a company that struggles to make money has a market capitalization of $28.4 billion.
And that has to do with the concept of freedom.
Cars used to be the ultimate symbols of freedom. A century ago Henry Ford’s Model T liberated millions of people from drudgery and slower modes of transport. For suburban teens, a driver’s license has long been the ticket to independence. Imagine the loss of liberty you’d feel if you couldn’t use Twitter for a day. Now imagine the loss of liberty you’d feel if you couldn’t drive for a day.
Since its arrival on the scene, Tesla has offered its well-heeled customers a different type of freedom, one that is gaining more currency as awareness of climate change and the ill effects of fossil fuels rise. That is the freedom from gas stations, from gasoline and oil, from gas taxes, from emissions. Before Tesla, the prospect of moving from one place to another without emitting carbon dioxide meant donning the equivalent of a hair shirt—riding a bicycle, walking, going a few miles in all-electric mode in an unsexy hybrid. Tesla affords its owners the ability to zip from one place to another, sans emissions, in a cool sports car.
Of course, Tesla’s promise of freedom from dirty emissions has always been limited. Why? Because in the U.S., most of the fuel that powers Teslas—electricity—is derived from burning fossil fuels. Despite the rapid growth of wind and solar, some 67 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. last year was made by burning coal, natural gas, or other fossil fuels, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. In Puerto Rico and Hawaii, the utilities still burn oil to make electricity. Sure, a Tesla may not emit toxic emissions when it zips around posh ZIP codes. But creating the electricity that was used to charge its battery certainly did. It’s kind of ironic—and a little self-defeating—that many Teslas effectively run on coal.
Energy storage is stationary. And a giant, expensive battery pack installed in your home doesn’t really enhance mobility. But it does contribute to freedom in two ways. First, it enables more people to liberate themselves from the electrical grid and fossil fuels at home. Second, it offers the potential to finally sever the chain between transport and fossil fuels.
Having an independent power source at home has become a bigger issue for people all over the country in recent years, as storms and floods tend to make electricity unavailable for longer periods of time. A sense of survivalism has set in, even in relatively dense suburbs. My personal tipping point came in 2011, when Hurricane Irene left us without power for more than a week. Our response was to install a 10-kilowatt Generac generator that runs on propane.
A loud, fossil fuel-burning generator is comforting. But it would be more efficient—and more pleasing, and more green, and more quiet—to have a powerful battery in the basement that could kick in at times of need. And it would be even more appealing if this battery could be charged by emissions-free solar energy. It’s no surprise that Tesla conducted its pilot storage test with Solar City, which plasters solar panels on roofs.
Solar power is famously intermittent, which is a fancy of way of noting that the sun doesn’t shine for a big chunk of the day. Also, there are times when a solar panel system might produce more electricity than the house consumes. Many states have net-metering arrangements—regulatory schemes that force utilities to buy excess power from roof-based solar panel systems. But not every state enforces such regimes, and utilities generally aren’t thrilled about the deal.
Storage in conjunction with solar achieves two goals. First, excess power created during daylight hours, if not sold to the grid, can be used to charge the battery. The battery can be used in times of emergency. Or, in theory, it could be tapped at night, to pick up the smaller electric load of a sleeping household—thus further reducing the need for dependence on the grid.
Second, it can truly liberate eco-minded drivers from fossil fuels. If you own or lease an electric car or plug-in hybrid, that battery can also function as a gas station and gas tank. Even for homeowners fortunate enough to have both solar panels on the roof and a Tesla in the driveway, it’s difficult to drive around solely on emissions-free power. If you drive a car to work, the only time it is home—and hence available to be charged—is in the evening, when no solar power is being created. But a battery continually charged during the day by solar power could be tapped at night to refuel an electric car.
Done at scale, this combination could offer an entirely different model of fueling mobility. Under the old model, we dig for fossil fuels, spend a lot of energy refining them and transporting them into a tank at a gas station, then pump them into cars, which burn them as they move around town. Lots of emissions, lots of inefficiency. Under the new model, the fuel is harvested—quietly and cheaply—on the roof of a home, funneled into a tank in the basement, and then pumped into an onboard tank via a plug. All without emissions, odors, or much energy spent in distribution.