J.B. Straubel talks battery storage

JB Straubel Battery talk TeslaMondo

Obscure heavy metal reference. Sorry.

J.B. Straubel is Tesla’s chief technology officer, and also a Solar City board member. He will one day become Tesla CEO*, when Musk steps aside around 2019 to focus on Mars. ** Around the same time, Tesla will either drop “motors” from the name or spin off its energy storage unit under a different name.  ***

In May, Straubel delivered an hour-long filibuster on energy storage at the 2014 Silicon Valley/ SEEDZ Energy Storage Symposium. Style-wise, it falls well short of history’s greatest speeches. He doesn’t raise his voice or whip up audience emotion. He fails to even tap his lectern, never mind pound it. But importance-wise, especially to TSLA shareholders, it’s a great speech indeed, for it colorizes Tesla’s relationship with batteries, past, present and future. One could argue there is no more crucial relationship in the industrial world at the moment. Certainly none more watched. And yet, you probably haven’t seen the video. TeslaMondo will save you some time. Here are the highlights:

General context:
“I really love batteries. I think I might love batteries more than cars. It’s kind of a passion of mine.”
“It’s kind of amazing that even in the 90s we were building electric vehicles with lead acid batteries.”
“Tesla was the first one to actually commercialize and sell a lithium ion car to consumers.”

The pace of battery improvements: “There was nothing, and still is today, nothing that’s clearly starting to plateau . . . We’re seeing something close to doubling in performance, of energy-density performance, every ten years . . . Model S was introduced maybe five years after the Roadster and we saw improvements of around 40 percent, on the battery technology, the fundamental chemistry, the packaging of the battery pack itself. And that directly translated to how we can get close to 300 miles range in a model S, almost 85 kw of energy storage, in a pack that’s actually smaller than the Roadster pack. And again, these improvements are not standing still. We’re continuing to watch the same doubling every ten years out for at least another 10 to 20 years. And it’s incredibly exciting on the car side, because, you know it doesn’t take many more, even tens of percent improvement, before the competition with ICE just spreads everywhere.”

Gigafactory output beyond automotive: “I’m pretty bullish that stuff can actually scale faster than the car market. The grid storage market is kind of slow to mature but once you cross some critical price thresholds, you’re really dealing almost more in commodities. You know, nobody really cares that much about how sexy your stationary battery pack is, what the styling looks like, you know. It’s a much easier sales proposition. If it saves money for the customer, and you can clearly do that in a bankable way, you’ll sell it. It will scale.”

Solar backup: “Most people today still think that if they install solar on their house, they’re off-grid. I could take a poll of most people and I’d say that’s about a 75 percent assumption, even though it’s totally wrong. You’re absolutely on grid, in fact, totally dependent on the grid for the solar to even operate.”

Batteries crucial for clean energy: “Almost everyone realizes that in the very long term future we have to get to 100 percent renewable grid. You know, that seems logical, right? Is it going to take 50 years, 100 years, who knows. As you start adding more and more solar to get to, you know 50, 60, 70 percent renewable, you’ve completely morphed and changed around your whole concept of when the peaks happen. You know there would be negative midday demand. There would have to be, in order to have 100 percent renewables. You’d have to over-generate, clearly, when you have the energy. Storage just becomes an absolute imperative to get there. At some point, there isn’t a choice.”

Humanity’s motive: “It’s not something where fear over Co2 or fear over other things will be the driving reason for change. The economics and the compelling technical merits of this solution will be what drives it.”

Wind backup: “If you look at the price of wind generation today, it’s cheaper than anything else that people can install. You can sign power purchase agreements in Texas that are under three cents per kilowatt hour. You know, that’s incredibly cheap. But it needs storage in order to drive it to a higher percentage of the mix.”

Lithium supply: “There’s plenty of raw materials. There’s a lot of hype about lithium shortages, but you know, we’ve dug into that pretty deeply and it’s just not true. There’s an overabundance of lithium that takes us way, way beyond these projections.”

Regulatory change: “Tesla is an innovation company at the core. And we really focus on creating products that end up driving the need for change in a regulatory environment. That’s kind of our cycle of chicken and egg. I think it’s very hard to create and educate people on the need for new regulations based on hypotheticals.”

Selling stationary storage to utilities: “That’s kind of why we’ve come into this on the back of the automotive industry. So we can say, ‘This is very low-risk.’ We have many gigawatt hours of cars zooming all around different countries doing duties that are enormously more aggressive than these stationary packs. This is, like, where an automotive pack goes to take a nap.”

Li-ion’s obsolescence. “It definitely is not lithium ion forever. You know, forever is a long time. But I think it is lithium ion for five, maybe 10 years. And I’m the first person that’s hoping and rooting for battery improvements in whatever form they come . . . But we’re not waiting. That’s another dangerous game that people get into. When you look at any technology that’s improving, there’s always a temptation to just wait and do nothing, but we’re seeing an ability to get to the price points and the economies and business models that just make sense on their own right.”

TeslaMondo editorial interjection on battery tech shelf life: Note the continued success of the Prius, which is predominantly NiMh for Cripes’ sake.

* A guess
** Another guess
*** And another guess

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2 thoughts on “J.B. Straubel talks battery storage

  1. Anonymous says:

    He speaks of the Kilowatt as being energy, that is wrong. The Kilowatt is the unit of power. Power and energy are not the same thing. Power is the time rate of energy flow. In mathematical terms power, (Kilowatts), is the time derivative of energy. The derivative of a quantity has little to do with the magnitude of the quantity.


  2. vfxx says:

    I rave over those two JB battery-talk videos. I send them to anyone who I think has the brains and imagination to really grasp the gravity of what he is saying. I bought more SCTY after the first one. Now it look like the battery biz will be under the TSLA banner. I’m OK with that too.


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