Tesla's Gigafactory: Beyond EVs to a greener grid

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."

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.


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.

See also:

Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • Take the 50 million foodstampers

    put them on treadmills and bikes hooked up to generators, they can actually pay off their debt to the country and power the grid.
    • Ignoring conveniently that the majority of people on SNAP are employed

      • Could you supply the statistical breakdown that shows the number of people

        employed, versus the number of people that are not working, in regards to those receiving "food stamps"?
        • Yes, I can

          Though I wouldn't have to if you'd bother to check your facts before posting your right-wing dogma. It would be nice if for once facts actually drove your opinions rather than the other way round, but I guess we can't live in a perfect world.
          First, the very rules of the program necessitate either employment or job training. Without, SNAP recipients in most locations are only given three months of benefits.
          FTMP, able-bodied adults between 16 and 60 must either be employed, register for work, accept suitable employment, and/or take part in an employment and training program to which they are referred by the SNAP office.

          According to the stats from the USDA, 41% of SNAP recipients lived in a household with earnings. Recipients include ALL members in the household, including the elderly past retirement age, and children. Counting total households rather than recipients, the majority of said household receiving SNAP had income from earnings.

          According to the CBPP, over the last two decades, large shares of SNAP households have become working households. In 1989, 42 percent of all SNAP households received cash welfare benefits and only 20 percent had earned income. By 2010, over three times as many SNAP households worked as relied solely on welfare benefits for their income.
          Nearly half (47 percent) were under age 18 and another 8 percent were age 60 or older. Working-age women represented 28 percent of the caseload, while working-age men represented 17 percent. [USDA]
          So unless you are suggesting there are throngs of Dickensian children, living on their own and milking the system, even if you assume only one child per household, the math is quite clear that over 50% of households that receive SNAP have income outside of public assistance.

          Despite the large jump in unemployment during the recession, the share of SNAP families with earnings has continued to increase in recent years. This suggests that for a growing share of the nation's workers, having a job has not been enough to keep them out of poverty. [CBPP, 7/9/12]
          • That should read 41% of SNAP-recipient households

  • Exageration

    Worthwhile article. One claim is overstated:
    "an EV does not require you to throw away a gallon or more of oil every 3000 miles"
    Modern cars with modern oil can do 10,000 miles between oil changes. And the oil can be cleaned and then used for other purposes (e.g. burnt for heat) not thrown away.
    • Oil Changes

      It's not necessarily an exaggeration. Yes, synthetics can go 10k miles before a change but the regular oil is still 3 - 5k.

      Places like Jiffy Lube will still promote 3k eventho 5k is safe for regular oil.

      Most waste oil is (or should be) recycled however.
      • Talking about synthetics . . .

        Talking about synthetics . . . they're called "synthetic" because they're not really oil (although they can and often do contain other petroleum products).
        • Synthetics

          Many of the new "Synthetic" oils are actually highly refined petroleum products. The oil industry is allowed to call them synthetics because the product has characteristics similar to laboratory derived synthetic oil. (molecule size and uniformity is one). These are called group III oils.
  • Jason Harris

    Awesome article! Greetings from Sumter.
  • Balanced

    Well balanced intelligent article. Probably will not get a lot of responses because it's so good!
    Not the usual silliness I have seen often on ZDNet trying to fish for controversy just to get reader response.
    You are most likely quite correct RTG's great idea, Elon Musk a great innovator.
    I find most that are critical have no better idea's, just keep burning oil/coal etc. when the answers are varied and no one solution will solve our energy problems.
    Keep funding the new solutions and together they will make a significant impact that will increase as time ticks by.
    • Kudos to Elon Musk

      I'm grateful that Elon Musk is opening up his patents to serve humanity rather than preventing human progress for personal gain like every other billionaire squatting on a stack of patents. If there were more men like him in the world, we'd all be using purely clean energy sources by now instead of fossil fuels that our children died in the desert to secure. All of the patents for engines that run on air, water, or magnetism wouldn't have been bought up, seized, and buried over the past two centuries if other billionaires were as socially responsible as Elon. I have great respect for him. If anyone can move us all forward in our modern corrupt society, it's probably him.
  • Outcomes vs Intentions

    Jason H / Jason P - Good articles.

    JH: You say "we must consider Mr. Musk’s underlying and long term intentions" but I would posit that intentions / perceptions / feelings / emotion are often what drive these discussions vs actual outcomes / physics / reality. I believe that is JP's basic premise as well.

    To be clear - I'm not professionally qualified to do a deep dive on the science behind the actual outcomes. I do want to continue to see advances in our ability to provide clean, low cost energy to more folks around the world, along with serious advances in energy efficiency and conservation. Energy that will no doubt be derived from a combination of many sources that will evolve or fall out of favor or abundance over time. And a rational discussion about ROI, costs, tradeoffs, and current technical reality is critical.

    I read an interesting book 3 years ago (Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines, Richard Muller.) Muller, an accomplished physics prof from Berkeley, did a good job injecting scientific reality into what are often politically charged policy issues. One of the key challenges for electric vehicles (beyond battery cost, weight, load, slow technology advances, and disposal) was the overhead of conversion / transmission involved in state change from potential source fuels to a vehicle’s tires. Everything from energy density, discharge rate, and costs / supply to the amount of energy - (used joules as unit of energy) - lost in each conversion from mechanical / electrical / transmission / storage load / electrical / mechanical conversion / tires step of the process and given up as heat. Economies of scale and efficiency in the large power generation sites can overcome some of this but critical to not underestimate the loss from each state change.

    Recall that the author also did a good job of explaining why the much discussed promise of the New Hydrogen Economy had some very serious shortcomings that he put into the context of physics. Don’t hear much about this option anymore.
    • To be clear

      There is only one state of change that really matters, that is combustion. To put it into perspective:

      Transmission loss is 6.5 - 7%
      Lithium Ion batteries have a charge/discharge efficiency of ~97%
      Charger efficiency is around 92%
      The ac induction motor has an efficiency of around 90%

      The most efficient powerplant we have invented state of the art from Siemens and GE are about 61-62% efficient. This is for natural gas. The most efficient coal powerplant is around 45-46% efficient.

      While losses exist everywhere, combustion is the single most source of inefficiency. Overall even with the losses, EVs are more efficient then conventional gasoline cars by a good margin.

      Personally I think with the introduction of the gigafactory, we can begin dumping the grid and use solar + battery instead for residential. (Industrial would most likely still need to be grid tied).

      Hydrogen is a joke. Don't get me wrong I think fuel cells have their uses, just not in cars.
      • Right on!

        To summarize, with a 61% efficient power plant, 7% transmission loss, 97% battery charge efficiency, a 92% efficient charger, and a 90% efficient motor thats:

        .61 * .97 * .97 * .92 * .9 = 47%

        efficient compared to 25% for the internal combustion engine making it almost twice as good. With a 45% efficient power plant the number is 35%.
        • There is more to the equation

          When quoting gasoline car efficiency, we always talk about PEAK efficiency. Most of the time a gasoline car is not running at peak efficiency(unless it is a hybrid). Powerplants run at peak efficiency.

          Then there are other factors such as gasoline needs to be refined and then transported by heavily inefficient trucks around the country. Then there is evaporative losses and idle losses.
  • Our Solar Future

    In his 2013 TED interview, Elon Musk stated that he believes solar will be the largest contributor to the US electric grid by 2030. Solar is our most abundant source of free energy. As Musk points out, the Earth is already solar powered. The cost and efficiency of solar have come a long way in the past decade, and energy storage systems are not far behind. A solar powered grid solves the power plant emissions problem and makes electric transportation the obvious choice for the future.
    Todd R. Lockwood

    And it is NOT 42! It is Solar Freakin' Highways! Check out this link for info: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlTA3rnpgzU Not kidding!
  • Solar everything.

    For 200 years - and ONLY 200 years - we have got our energy from underground.

    With increasing efficiency (therefore reduced energy need), there really is no reason why the future should not be 95% solar with a little wind and hydro (not much - moving parts bring maintenance need, which is a major expense).

    Year by year, solar cells get better, and batteries get better. That will continue for a while yet.

    Sure, a big investment. Not cheap, not quick; it will take decades at BEST. But it's such an obvious solution, you have to wonder why Big Oil doesn't invest in solar, instead of spending billions trying to wreck it.

    Perlow's original article was the most stupid, Luddite, article I've ever read on ZDnet (and by gum, it has some competition).
  • And everyone avoids the elephant in the room.

    CO2 production from even coal is half what comes out of the standard tail pipe. We drive billions of terraforming machines in en environment that doesn't need terraforming. How do you justify that? It's not the planet or even life in general we endanger. The planet and life on it has survived worse. No, it's our own civilization we endanger. It's the future of our grand children and their descendants. How does any sentient species abide that?
    Mark Bryant