Tesla Surges Ahead on Energy Storage

, Senior energy analyst | April 30, 2015, 2:41 pm EDT
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It’s been an exciting week for clean energy in California, with strong action by the governor on carbon pollution and a bold announcement expected on energy storage that will accelerate our clean energy transition.

First, on Wednesday Governor Brown issued an executive order that directs California to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The target will help the state meet its goal of an 80 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2050.

On Thursday night, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, will tell us about the company’s plans to roll out batteries that will store renewable energy generated on the rooftops of homes and businesses, and larger-scale applications for renewable energy power plants.

This initiative builds upon the “Gigafactory” announced last year and under construction in Reno, Nevada, which is planning to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for at least 500,000 electric vehicles by 2020. As Tesla envisions, the combination of renewable energy, batteries, and electric vehicles will create a constant supply of clean electricity to fuel a new fleet of vehicles that will be able to ditch gasoline altogether.

A portrayal of Tesla's gigafactory. Image: Tesla

A portrayal of Tesla’s gigafactory. Image: Tesla

Storing the sun

Energy storage, which captures solar and wind generation for use later on (when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing) will be an important tool to help the world rely on much larger quantities of renewable energy generation.

If Tesla and other companies can dramatically scale up energy storage production and lower costs, it could be a game changer for renewables; imagine supplies of clean energy that could be stored in the way we store natural gas in tanks, or water behind dams (with the added bonus of being drought-proof).

However, storage is just one of the many tools we have at hand to help us integrate renewables, and states do not have to wait for storage technologies to mature before they make greater investments in clean energy. Even though 29 states and D.C. have renewable energy investment programs, most don’t have enough renewables on the grid to require storage right now in order to go further.

As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, there are several strategies grid operators can deploy to make the grid more flexible, responsive, and able to absorb more renewables. For example, targeted energy efficiency in the evening hours will reduce the burden to supply electricity when solar power (sans storage) is not readily available.

Demand response programs, which shift electricity load towards favorable times of the day, can help us take advantage of renewables when they are generating the most. Renewable generation facilities can also be equipped to provide some of the grid reliability services currently met by fossil fuels (usually natural gas), making them even more useful to grid operators.

California to ramp up renewables

States are increasingly turning to these flexible, non-fossil power management solutions as they strive to cut pollution and rely on renewables to serve their electricity needs. These investment opportunities are perhaps most timely in California, where the state legislature is contemplating two bills—SB 350 (De León/Leno) and AB 645 (Williams/Rendon)—which would increase the state renewable energy program from 33 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030.

Taking this step is not only visionary, it’s achievable. Check out a new UCS fact sheet that summarizes why we think reaching 50% renewables is within reach and will be realized sooner than some may think.

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