Elon Musk of Tesla electric car fame, has long realized that improved ability to store electricity is unquestionably the most important requirement for rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, particularly solar. He has invested $1.4 billion in a 'gigafactory' to produce lithium-ion batteries able to store electricity generated by household solar panels, commercial power stations and for operation of electric vehicles. Such is the demand for these products, that orders for the total annual output of the factory have already been placed.
Imminent availability of these higher capacity batteries has already given increased impetus to further research and technology. Over the next 3-5 years this is likely to result in development of batteries which have greater storage density and are cheaper than the initial offering from Elon Musk which is priced at the margin of affordability. In an open market, such developments are inevitable, particularly where the most innovative and cheapest batteries promise to reap massive profits.
Why this pent-up demand? Because efficient, rapidly re-chargeable batteries offer huge advantages to owners and users of solar energy, making it a reliable, flexible and potentially cheaper source of electricity than produced by any fossil-fuelled power station.
In Australia, almost 1.4 million houses have solar panels on their roofs with capacity to generate over 130 MW of electricity. These dwellings remain attached to the grid which provides back-up electricity when solar panels do not generate sufficient electricity to meet domestic needs, for example on cloudy days. A large number of these dwellings also sell electricity to the grid when their solar panels produce energy which is surplus to domestic needs.
The 7 and 10 KWh "WallPack" batteries on offer from Elon Musk have sufficient capacity to reduce the need for grid back-up power supply to zero while at the same time improving the ability of the grid to access power generated by rooftop panels. Both batteries will be available in Australia in 2016 and are likely to stimulate rapid growth in the number of dwellings connected to solar panels on their roofs. Homeowners will be able to rely on solar panels for all their normal domestic electricity needs and increase income from selling surplus energy to the grid, should they remain connected to it.
Batteries will also enable dwellings in remote locations, particularly those not on the grid, to meet all their electricity needs from solar panels, replacing diesel powered generators where used. Diesel is expensive, particularly in remote locations. Sunlight is free.
Small and remote communities not connected to the grid can gain access to a 24 hour power supply by installing solar panels and batteries on individual dwellings and other facilities such as schools, aid-posts or water pumps and purifiers.
Larger remote communities not connected to the grid can gain access to electricity by constructing solar panel power stations of sufficient size to meet local needs combined with batteries attached to individual dwellings for use as back-up when the panels are not generating sufficient electricity or not operating at all, eg at night.
At present, commercial fossil-fuelled power stations have to be located in close proximity to their fuel supply, usually coal. They generate large amounts of pollution and electricity, the latter distributed via the grid to end-users possibly a thousand kilometers away. Consumers, whereever they are located, must be connected to the grid in order to get electricity which is normally available 24/7. However, connection to the grid may either be unaffordable or for remote and insular communities, impossible.
The advent of solar power stations, supported by newly available large storage of electricity, makes those stations a reliable source of energy supply on a continuous basis. Solar power stations are no longer tied to a fossil fuel source and can now be located in immediate proximity of end users, obviating the need for connection to a grid to provide back-up.
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