Can Elon Musk's wall-mounted battery solve India’s power crisis?
Photo Credit: David McNew/AFP
Tesla’s latest offering, Powerwall, is being called a game changer. It may not benefit India soon but it does offer hope, provided our scientists and government take it to the next level.

Maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made his first millions by founding the internet payment company PayPal, is widely known today as the real-life Tony Stark of the technology world for his brilliance. He is the head of Tesla Motors, a flagship company of Tesla which wants to make electric cars a mainstream trend, and runs SpaceX, which wants to become a leader in space exploration and rocket technologies.

At an event in Hawthorne, California, last week, Musk launched Tesla’s Powerwall, a wall-mounted stackable battery system that can store power for use in times of blackouts and when power is scarce – two problems India is well aware of. The idea behind the system is simple: “going off the grid” by generating and storing solar energy to “enable zero emission power generation”.

No sooner was Powerwall launched than the world called it a game changer. One news report says it is already sold out through the middle of 2016. The technology holds myriad possibilities for India as it tries to bring over 300 million people out of darkness, and though India may not see its advantages soon, the tech will provides a start from which the country can benefit in the long run.

As Tesla explains it, “Powerwall is a home battery that charges using electricity generated from solar panels, or when utility rates are low, and powers your home in the evening. It also fortifies your home against power outages by providing a backup electricity supply.”

People in India are not unacquainted with the general idea behind Powerwall. The handy, celebrated “inverter” that is so common in middle-class homes has the same basics. But Musk’s invention’s advantage is that it makes current battery technology less cumbersome and impractical. “The issue with existing batteries is that…they suck”, he quipped at Powerwall’s unveiling.

Industrial usability

Powerwall will come in two models, one a 7 kilowatt-hour unit and the other 10 kilowatt-hour unit. Preliminary assessments by energy comparison companies, such as USwitch, suggest that 1kWh unit can work a laptop, a full washing machine cycle or an electric kettle 10 times. This does make the 7kWh unit sound less exciting. However, it holds prospects.

When it comes to solar power, the issue of battery technology, its efficiency and operational qualities have always been hindrances. This is a challenge the Indian government will face on mass scale when it tries to achieve its target of producing 100 Gigawatts of solar power by 2020 – or, to put it in perspective, more solar power than the entire world generates now.

One function of Powerwall, which could be significantly gainful in this respect, is its ability to store solar power during cycles when the end producer is selling it at cheaper prices.

While this may not make exceptional financial savings for households at the moment, considering the outputs are mere drops in overall daily consumption, the large-scale version of Powerwall, called Powerstack and meant for industrial use, could make significant savings for businesses. Tesla, already a leader of commercial battery systems in the US, particularly California, has seen interest from likes of Amazon and Walmart, two companies who are in India as well.

The big hiccup, like with other alternatives energies and even Tesla's high-performance electric vehicles, is the steep price.

The fact that Powerwall today costs Rs 1,91,700 ($3,000) for the 7kWh model and Rs 2,23,260 ($3,500) for the 10kWh unit in the US makes it commercially unviable not just in countries like India, but even in most states in the US and many countries in Europe (even though Tesla says the demand is “crazy off the hook”).

Endless possibilities

Another challenge is the fact that most of India still does not live in permanent housing, making even government-led use of such a product unviable due to lack of supporting infrastructure and basic amenities. However, like any technology, cost viability is bound to come with time and widespread acceptance of such products.

Powerwall has already sparked discussions on grid structures and how self-reliance in energy on a per-household metric can be achieved. In India, electrification is designed on a village-to-village basis, meaning if a power line is powering one house in a village of 50 homes, the entire village is deemed electrified. This situation arises due to many variables in a conventional grid structure, starting from shortfalls in conventional power production to infrastructural blockages and financial limitations. But the possibilities are boundless.

Indeed, some are even questioning whether Tesla has just “killed nuclear power”, an energy source expected to lead India’s aims to reduce its chronic energy poverty.

Musk’s vision is clearly the future and will benefit countries such as India. The fact that Tesla’s patent policy is open source and has been extended to technologies behind Powerwall should be seen as an opportunity by India’s scientific community and the government to take it to the next level after customising it for the local market. This technology not only offers India the hope of technological improvements for future projects such as Smart Cities, but also holds the prospects of a clean and cost-effective grid.

(This news story is from Scroll.in)
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