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Why is the Domestic Battery so Important?

Earlier this year I saw an all in one inverter and domestic battery unit on display at the Bosch stand at CES.

2 years ago I stayed with my friend Simon Hackett in Adelaide, Australia and saw his line up of domestic batteries in sturdy cabinets outside his home. Simon's house is covered in solar panels, he makes more electricity than he can use and he runs three electric cars from this power source.

Yesterday Tesla announced its domestic battery range.

So, is this yet further ‘playthings for the rich’ as so many suggest to me on the Twitters?

What role can a domestic battery have for the ordinary Joe/Joanne?

With the advent of ever cheaper and more effective lithium ion battery technology, something government supported scientists have been working on for the last 40 years, a new paradigm is beginning to emerge.

On a personal level, if you have a few solar panels and a battery in your home, this doesn’t mean you can ‘live off the grid’ but it does mean you can reduce your electricity bill by a much larger amount that you can at the moment. You can obviously store the electricity coming from your panels during the day when you are not home and use it in the evening when you return.

But that really isn’t the story.

If a thousand homes had solar panels and domestic batteries fitted, it wouldn’t make any difference to the national picture.

Those homeowners would benefit from greatly reduced bills and maybe feel smug, but that’s about it.

If ten thousand houses had them, it might be possible to register the reduction in peak demand at the National Grid control room I visited for a Fully Charged episode.

If a million homes had them, solar panels or not, it would make a very profound difference.

If 10 million homes had them, well, everything would change.

But why?

This is a graph of the daily demand in the UK over 1 week.

As you can see it is not a steady line, it veers up and down as demand increases and decreases, imagine reducing that peak demand by half. At 5 to 6 pm in the evening take ten million homes off that demand peak and what does that mean?
It means we need less power generation, much less. Whole power stations less.

Running the national grid would be much cheaper, the demand spikes would be reduced. The ‘bath tub effect’ overnight would smooth out. 10 million batteries would be charging at night using mainly wind and a bit of nuclear.

We could, some claim, stop burning coal.

We could also continue with our current energy consumption, no one would notice anything on a day to day.

We wouldn’t need to spend billions building a new nuclear power station with all the resulting increases in cost for all of us, not to mention the massive bill we will be leaving our grandchildren to ‘make it safe’ in 50 or 60 years time.

We would also be able to utilise the ever-growing supply of renewable energy in a far more effective way.

We would, as consumers, be in a position to challenge the ‘big six’ energy companies to change their policies. Their profits would take a right hammering which of course they won’t be happy about, the existing energy matrix (or stranglehold, depending on your view) would change dramatically.

We could actually choose when we took power from the grid and clearly people are going to choose the cheapest time, the time when the least carbon is released and we use the most of our own energy generation.

Now, add to this the steady increase in community owned renewable energy systems springing up all over the country and you are looking at a widely distributed, community owned energy infrastructure which will alter the entire countries bank balance. It will make us far more energy independent, less at the mercy of the likes of lovely President Putin and the delightfully liberal Saudi regime.

It will also mean much cheaper electricity, and, when the electric car becomes normal much cheaper travel.

This isn’t a sci-fi pipe dream, it’s happening right now.

The changes are, I would suggest, going to be disruptive and controversial. There will be powerful lobbies that will try and hold this technology back and maintain the status quo.

However history has shown us that when a better technology arrives, regardless of the resistance of the old guard, the technology is rapidly adopted.

VHS tapes anyone?

The arguments about the cost of batteries, the environmental impact and the ‘short life’ have already withered on the vine.

10 years ago, a battery like the one Tesla has just announced would have cost over $25,000.

The Tesla indoor or outdoor unit costs just over $3,000 and they will rapidly get cheaper.

I haven’t dared say it before but I’ve known it for a long time. It’s taken 150 years, it’s been a slow development but now it’s reached a historic tipping point.

The battery will change the world.


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Reader Comments (16)

Just imagine if a power generation company had a bit of sense (bear with me); rather than building a multi-million pound power station, they buy a bucket-load of batteries and panels and rent them to households in the UK. It would eliminate the main barrier to entry for most normal people (ie. the cost of installing panels and batteries), and make the whole thing viable.

All of a sudden, the energy supply market would be a very different place. It wouldn't even need to be a generation company; just someone with a bit of business vision and guts. Virgin Energy? How about Kryten-Power ? :-)

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I think you'll find VHS tapes will be making a comeback, because people will get fed up of losing DVDs.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdam McArdle

Whilst i admire the spirit, and agree that local battery storage is effective in "load spreading" (which is necessary for numerous alternative energy generation schemes to succeed (wind,wave,solar etc), can i sound a note of caution?

Currently, the VAST costs of our electricity generation and distribution system is born by the energy companies. They invest MASSIVE sums of money in infrastucture and maintenance to ensure power reaches our homes.

Chemical batteries have a life span, and even though that is constantly increasing, all system hardware ages and requires replacement. Currently, when you buy a house, you can be fairly certain that the largest bill you might face is say £500 to replace the fuse box, or some minor wiring. However, if domestic power systems take responsibility and capability away from the grid, that overhead could be potentially ruinous for un-expecting house holders. Imagine buying a house, then having the battery system requiring replacement as it reaches end of life etc. For low income residents that itself could "write off your house" in the similar way to the engine in your modern car failing writes that off, even if the rest of the car is in perfect order!

Now, we shouldn't let this prevent local energy generation or storage, far from it, but i've yet to see a proper financial break down of the long term costs and risks of such a system?

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax Torque

@Max Torque: I equate the need to replace a domestic battery system in 5-10 years as more like having to replace a boiler. Sure, it's annoying and it's something you would take into account when considering buying a house but it would be a very small percentage of the cost of the house.

As future governments gradually reduce incentives for installing solar panels on homes (cessation of Feed In Tariffs, etc) the focus will turn from feeding the grid to utilising the energy you generate yourself. This is where the batteries will come into their own. When Distribution Network Operators' low voltage feeders are overloaded and they start refusing to connect more panels to the grid (already happening!) batteries will be the answer.

I hope that in 10 years time I'll be reading the headline "Construction of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station halted due to lack of demand for centralised electricity generation." I believe that's a real possibility.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLine Noise

Tesla beat Ecotricity to it!

Ecotricity have had the "Black Box" project https://www.ecotricity.co.uk/about-ecotricity/eco-labs on the cards for a while... However it doesn't seem to have materialised.

I have solar panels, an electric car and am happy to sign the paper work on a good domestic battery anytime.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnother Tim

@Max Torque – your estimate of £500 for the maximum replacement cost for home facilities is some way off. A replacement gas boiler is £3000, many people replace windows (£10k+), kitchens, carpets, etc. Anyone with solar PV installed (a key beneficiary of battery storage) should budget £1k for a replacement inverter at 10 years.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobwiz

A lone Powerwall will run HVAC in the statistically average American home for 30 minutes. For better planned homes this could go up by a multiple of five. The three-day, all-solar fantasy system I've been working out for "the shack", a 600 sq ft or 56 sq m well-insulated house deliberately placed out in the middle of nowhere, will cost $7800, including freight shipping to commercial location and miscellanea. Admittedly, I'll have to do all the ordering, accounting, wiring and cussing myself but am equipped with both the emotional stamina and relative skill to do so. It's based on SLA batteries for an expected life of three years. I'll see if the packaging, price and stability of 21st C batteries is up to snuff in the five years I'll take before actually replacing the 1 MAh banks. Suspecting it will.

The key to Powerwall is the packaging. It's a one-stop, call the electrician and let him do it, set up which is ideal for the Occidental homeowner. It will make the utilities and the city ordinance folks happy. Prop up some solar panels and have a go.

This isn't a 150 year journey, however. It's really been more like 10 years when the Chinese started taking the market for improved batteries seriously. I know Westerners love to promote the naive, nouveau riche folks who are putting up the world's fastest skyscraper and building empty metropolii on spec, but that is like judging the US based solely on the antics of its local constabularies. It is sometimes painful for me to realize it takes something like the present Apple or Tesla to make something which should be mundane by now fashionable enough for the Authentic Organic Artisan crowd and their followers to adopt it, and at a premium price point.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStan

There is already storage capacity in the grid. I remember when I was younger when the Dinovwig pumped storage station was built.


I do like the idea of localised storage but wonder if there is a more efficient way than having 10 million household chemical batteries and associated electronics.

Obviously the big advantage of having lots of little batteries rather than a few expensive storage sites is that the cost can be brought down and improvements can be made over time more easily.

@max torque

With respect, you have your head buried in thé sand at this point.. battery packs are modular, unlike à regular lead acid lump of à battery, therefore partial cell swap outs will be possible at a very level of engineering capability.

Furthermore diagnostically thèse batteries will be constantly monitoring themselves in terms of equal charge / discharge ..doubtless with an app for that, ..much as wé expect new tech to be.
If wé look at a tesla car, there are masses of batteries, evenly dispersed for even weight ratio, therefore, if there is à duff cell thé remaniement can & will easily compensate whilst only dropping overall capacity by a modest amount, & allowing removal at ones liesure, or a qu'ici dell disconnection or a small, singular batt cell, ..far less hassle than à whole swap-out, ...unless some moron allows or to be designed that way. ;)
In fact, homebrew use or crash damaged tesla's, the battery packs, Are tested & in use, in Norway for a domestic property combined with solar panels.

Just read up, & don't fall for any schmutter the daily mail will inevitably pump out, ...they wish To sell the printed word, not worry about the quality or truth.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMr Gus

Will be while before Tesla battery arrives in the UK - check out Powervault - available here and now and designed for the UK

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Roberts

A friend of mine, ex-Future Networks head for a large electricity distributor, was at Tesla two weeks ago and is an enthusiast for this technology. The distribution networks have a problem and storage is the only real answer. Networks are built for peak loads and peak usage will only increase, particularly with electric vehicles. However, we will make more of our own power from photovoltaics, which will reduce our power purchasing. In the worst case (winter) there is no sun at peak demand, so peaks do not reduce. As investment requirements in the network depend on peak load this means more cost shared across fewer kilowatt-hours, or more expensive grid electricity. Only demand-response (switching things off) and local storage are the only solutions, and the network operators are already experimenting with this - look at the Thames Valley Vision smart grid evaluation project in Bracknell for an example. I expect in the longer term that distribution networks will become service providers, holding storage capacity and offering reduced price electricity for allowing the network to manage demand locally.

Is home storage in Li-ion a good idea? There is a very impressive graphic of an exploding li-ion battery captured at extremely high speed by an x-ray synchrotron, showing jets of liquid metal shooting out. So safety is a concern, even though these batteries are getting better. At the moment I'd rather have that storage at the local substation and store excess PV generation there.

May 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTom Foale

This is a great step forward. My only suggestion is if installing a battery setup in the home. Perhaps treat the batteries like lpg oil. Stored outside the house in a protective tank. As a firefighter I've seen batteries catch fire and they burn very well! There's rarely anything left of them or their nearby surroundings. Unlike the mains electric or gas supply...turning off the supply is not an option

May 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersam

Hey tom.

Just like wé have spécial storage for excess flammables, so areas can be constructed!?
For instance, use of easy to cut pir foam insulation walling with a galv steel overlay, ...ie, akin to à cold store. My single skin brick woodshed is what i'm eyeing up, or thé equivilent or a server rack space in your garden, like people store garden cushions in horrible plastic keter brand storage without batting an eyelid, it is easier than you think.

Smoking in bed I anticipate is more dangerous, in context.

May 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMr Gus

Tesla's PowerWall will enter a market that already has many competitors with established track records and a network of support companies. The preliminary specs don't look all that great on Tesla's offering either. An AC unit for a 1,500 sq ft home draws about 4kw when the compressor is running, which is more, IIRC, than the PowerWall can supply in single units. With battery technology improving all of the time and the same for the power electronics, having a modular system rather than everything in one box will be advantageous. One can upgrade whichever part has advanced enough to make the investment worthwhile. It also allows placing batteries on a floor or outside in an enclosure rather than mounting a massively heavy box on the wall.

Step one, get as many people into EV's as possible. Step TWO, use the battery packs that don't supply enough range anymore to act as a backup for home power. Step 3, when the home packs have given their all, recycle the materials for the next generation of EV batteries. Rinse and repeat for best results.

Being grid connected is not an evil thing. We can have solar and small wind turbines and still know that we can switch on a light on a windless night when we have a need. During the day, we can feed our excess generation (if any) onto the grid for some pocket change and to power the high street shops that won't have enough space or be in a proper location for a turbine or enough area for enough solar panels.

If too many people disconnect from the grid in too short of a time, it won't be cost effective for power companies to continue maintaining the lines to service the remaining people that can't afford the investment in some sort of onsite generation. I can envision a retreat of service to only the high street and industrial estates where a power company can earn enough to maintain lines and other infrastructure. That could cause firms in smaller industrial lots to relocate closer to a substation or pay a premium for electric service which may move local jobs further away from housing. We are so entrenched in the power system that we currently have and the electric companies have built their business models on the market decades past, that we must move forward with care. The worst possible scenario would be the financial collapse of a major power transmission company and the subsequent take over by the government to keep the lights on (how efficient would they be?) It doesn't matter if we purchase our power from one supplier or another, it's the company that delivers it to our homes that will be the weakest link.

Stan, the Chinese are already making the batteries/cells for Japanese companies that are marketed to the US and Europe. Tesla's partner for batteries is a Japanese company, Panasonic. While Panasonic may manufacture batteries in Northern Nevada within the GiggleFactory, they'll also be manufacturing in China and other areas with fewer regulations and looser labor laws. Those cells will be cheaper and will wind up in systems that compete with the PowerWall. Elon's seems to like locating his ventures in high cost of living areas or splitting up operations in such a way that maximizes shipping. Ie: Build a rocket engine in So. Cal, ship to Texas for testing, ship back to California for integration, ship entire rocket from west coast to east coast for launch. Build really expensive luxury cars, which employees mostly "blue collar" workers, in an area with some of the highest cost of living in the country.

The process to make Li cells has to be mostly automated for quality control and steps in the process take place in a vacuum or inert atmosphere, so there isn't much human labor involved until the cells are combined into batteries, Companies need a factory with reliable, cheap power, good logistics and local raw material/component suppliers. At this point in time, that's Asia. Our elected representatives need to stop fundraising and start looking at ways to make it more profitable for companies to locate manufacturing in country rather than importing goods from across the globe. but I digress.

May 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKen Brown

Hi Robert

I certainly agree with a most of what you say but I would suggest that there is an important element missing in this discussion, namely the energy supply side and specifically RE (Renewable Energy – the new RE?).

You show the graph of daily demand but what is also very important is the supply side. Batteries, I agree, could provide a solution for demand side management but supply side management for intermittent RE supplies, especially wind and solar, is a much bigger challenge as this needs to be managed on much longer timescales, e.g. annually or longer.

There are times in the UK, December 2010 being one in question, when solar generation is predictably low but wind generation output is also very low. I did a calculation based on the 2010 conditions with the assumption that the yearly average wind & solar contribution to the UK generation mix was 50% (25% wind, 25% solar) which gave a December RE generation shortfall of >10TWh (i.e. ~10 days of UK electricity use). If this shortfall was to be met by battery storage in 10M homes it would require each home to have ~1,000KWh of storage, which even at EOS’s (GOOGLE them) extremely cheap Zn-air technology cost of ~£100/KWh represents £100,000 per installation or ~£1,000Bn total installation costs. Even if these homes just installed sufficient storage to cover their own usage/shortfall for such a December or January, probably about 100KWh, (~350Wx24hx2weeks - excluding EV running energy) then this still represents an investment of well over £10,000, probably over £30,000 with the current Tesla system. This is clearly not a realistic solution to this occasional but very real challenge and without an alternative to the current generation technologies this is when the big players will have us by the short and curlys and will make up for their lost summer profits, unless we/you are prepared for the lights, and the C/H and the fridge the TV etc., to go out.

However, I do believe there is a solution to this dilemma, it’s a power generation system that is based on a Synthetic Closed Carbon Cycle. In simple terms you feed RE in on one side, there is an almost limitless clean carbon based energy storage mechanism in the middle and an efficient 'on demand' power generation system on the output side, totally decoupled from the fickle behaviour of our most abundant RE resources.

If you think this sounds interesting you can find a paper and a slide show outlining this concept and why I think we need it at these links:

Resus Technology Ltd.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNick Cook

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