Tesla's Gigafactory: Beyond EVs to a greener grid

Summary:When it comes to cleaner sources of electrical power, the devil is in the details.

By Jason Harris

Editor's Note: The following is a response to Jason Perlow's May 15, 2014 post, "Tesla Model S: The finest coal-powered car money can buy."

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Art: CBS Interactive

I've just read Mr. Perlow’s post concerning Tesla Motors, and the "finest coal-powered car..."

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I am a huge Tesla Motors fan, Elon Musk Fan, SpaceX fan and a Tesla stock investor.

I completely agree with Mr. Perlow’s sentiment that electricity which is produced via fossil fuel consumption is not as "green" as the elitist "greenies" would have you, or themselves, believe. There is nothing more formidable than ignorance in action!

I believe that there are a few overlooked points in Perlow’s criticism. Public news concerning Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City would suggest that Elon Musk is in agreement regarding clean electricity.

One of the goals of the Gigafactory project, which extends to multiple Gigafactories, possibly hundreds by 2040, is to provide energy storage cells not just for EVs, but also for the energy grid. Additionally, Musk’s Gigafactories are designed to be powered exclusively or predominantly by solar and wind power produced on-site.

There is a compelling argument that battery storage is inappropriate for the high power lines of main electric grid lines. While I tend to agree, I think it is prudent to assume that Mr. Musk is intelligent enough not to invest billions in a flawed concept.

Rather, I believe one underlying goal of the Gigafactories is to create a paradigm shift where we start to employ edge-based storage of energy, in the same way that several network devices serve as edge-storage servers, holding (relatively) small amounts of potential computing capacity and data across a large network.

Consider this hypothetical construct; by 2030, the majority of residences and business centers could have small solar farms on their roof footprint. The energy produced is stored in cells (produced in Musk's Gigafactories) and distributed through a load balancing system throughout a 24 hour period, to supply electricity to the given residence or commercial complex.

Current and currently emerging solar panel technologies don't reliably support a self-sustaining model for residences or commercial properties, except in the most optimum climates. However, one might modestly anticipate at least a 20 percent reduction in demand/need from the electricity grid.

As technologies such as LED lighting and inductive cooking gain broader acceptance, the gap between solar production and household consumption should narrow, and pass equilibrium to a net gain.

"There are numerous statistics available concerning the carbon footprint of an EV powered by electricity generated from coal.  Most all of them find the EV to perform favorably to a gasoline powered vehicle."

Another thought to consider, and perhaps more salient to Mr. Perlow’s article, concerns the argument that the electric car is simply "passing the greenhouse emissions buck." In arguing that batteries charged with “dirty” power are just as polluting, one must be mindful of the economies of scale associated with large power production facilities.

Large power plants are simply more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

There are numerous statistics available concerning the carbon footprint of an EV powered by electricity generated from coal.  Most all of them find the EV to perform favorably to a gasoline powered vehicle.

Consider that at least 30 percent of the electricity produced in the USA is non-coal, and that power companies buy and sell power between themselves to meet demand during peak load times. At any time an EV is going to be powered by less than 100 percent coal-produced electricity. Further, an EV does not require you to throw away a gallon or more of oil every 3000 miles.

Finally, I would like to speak to Mr. Perlow’s proposition concerning nuclear power.  My grandfather built the SNAP-27 RTG (Radioisotope Thermal Generator) devices which are still sitting on our moon from the Apollo missions, and are still outputting over 90 percent of their original voltage over 40 years later. The RTGs are simple and small, under 2 feet tall.

Using existent technology (and existing plutonium waste) we could install RTGs for every household in America, and they would be slightly larger than the HVAC air unit already sitting outside of almost every American home, smaller than a propane tank.

These units could supply all necessary power for a highly energy-efficient home using LED lighting, inductive cooking, and using geothermal heating/cooling or situated in a warmer climate.

I find very little negative risk to this approach. I believe nuclear energy to be relatively safe, and the RTG model is an edge-based delivery system. RTGs are physically static, not requiring active cooling mechanisms, and thus not presenting the meltdown threat of large scale nuclear plants.

The only downside to deploying RTGs to the public at large is the risk of terrorism. Imagine if every home in a given subdivision had the primary component of a nuclear bomb. It is just one simple problem, but no simple fix, and a major risk.

While I believe that nuclear energy is the most efficient solution to our energy woes, I fear the global political situation is mutually exclusive to a nuclear-only option for providing for existing energy demands.

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I also believe that Elon Musk is fervently working toward something important to him -- delivering a positive change to our planet’s ecosystem. And I believe that he is just as adamant as we are that coal-powered electricity isn't what we should be embracing.

I find the thesis of Perlow’s argument to be superficially correct. However, before attacking the Tesla, we must consider Mr. Musk’s underlying and long term intentions. 

I believe that the readers would benefit by exploring the issues of coal power and electric vehicles with a more detail-oriented approach.

About the author: Jason Harris is a software developer, serial entrepreneur and founder of Nebula Technologies. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina and is an electrical vehicle enthusiast.

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Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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