TECH

Tesla Battery: Everything You Need To Know

Here are all the details about South Australia's big plan.

30/08/2017 9:26 AM AEST | Updated 30/08/2017 12:42 PM AEST

Australia will soon be home to the world's biggest battery, built by Elon Musk's Tesla within 100 days or it's free.

In July, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill confirmed the deal between his Government, Tesla and French company Neoen to build the 100 megawatt (MW)/129 megawatt-hour (MWh) battery by December 1 following a year of power instability in the state and the need to address high energy prices.

It's been heralded as "a historic agreement" capable of delivering a back-up lithium ion battery system three times more powerful than any other large scale batteries, using renewable energy sources to "deliver electricity during peak hours to help maintain the reliable operation of South Australia's electrical infrastructure".

In other words, tech billionaire Musk's response to a series of blackouts that left South Australia struggling for energy sources earlier this year has been marketed as the ideal answer to the state's electricity woes.

But is that really all there is to it? How is this all going to work and will it be worth it? Bear with us and we'll fill you in on all the important bits you need to know.

What Is Being Built?

According to the Tesla statement that was released following Weatherill's announcement, the tech giant will be responsible for constructing what is being called a Tesla Powerpack.

The company has contracted Adelaide-based engineering firm Consolidated Power Projects (CPP) to build the powerpack, consisting of a 100 MW/129 MWh system which will be connected to Neoen's Hornsdale Wind Farm near Jamestown, South Australia.

The expected outcome is that the backup battery storage will be capable of providing enough power for more than 30,000 South Australian homes -- approximately equal to the number of dwellings that lost power during the blackouts -- for a period of between 15 and 20 years.

To explain exactly what a Tesla Powerpack is, HuffPost Australia spoke to Ariel Liebman, the Deputy Director of the Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute (MEMSI) at Melbourne's Monash University, who said the 'battery' being built is actually a self-cooling collection of thousands of lithium ion batteries, similar to those in mobile phones and laptops.

"A powerpack is a fridge-sized collection of big, flat tray-shaped laptop batteries," Liebman said.

"You charge them in the same way you charge a laptop or phone battery and direct them to discharge [electricity] when you want to. They also have a battery management system that's remotely controlled."

Liebman said the Tesla Powerpack plan consists of at least 600 fridge-like bodies, each with 16 trays (or individual batteries) shelved inside.

Some quick arithmetic will tell you that the Tesla battery aimed at solving South Australia's electricity problems is therefore, in fact, comprised of closer to 9,600 individual components that will look like the ones below.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
The South Australian Tesla Powerpack battery will actually look like thousands of big fridges.

So, How Do They Work?

According to Wasim Saman, professor of sustainable energy engineering at the University of South Australia, the answer to that question is actually quite straightforward.

"When there's a shortfall in the [South Australian] power supply, [the battery is] programmed to provide some stored electricity into the grid," he told HuffPost Australia.

Saman also said the battery is designed to be a backup storage system, charged using excess renewable energy created by the Hornsdale Wind Farm and will be ready to distribute that energy to cover any electrical network failures that occur around South Australia.

Getty Images
Inside each fridge-like Tesla Powerpack will be 16 individual battery trays that all wire into the network.

"On windy nights, there's more energy supplied by wind farms than the [South Australian electrical] grid can cope with... so there will be opportunities where there is excess supply from the wind farm which can be stored within the battery," he said.

"As soon as there's a signal from the grid that there is a demand [for extra electricity], then the battery can discharge into the grid at the required rate.

"Usually between 6pm and 7pm, there's a peak demand and the normal average peak demand in South Australia is something like 1600 megawatts. During heatwaves this becomes closer to 3000 megawatts."

Essentially, that means the battery project is an add-on to South Australia's energy capacity, particularly throughout heatwaves, blackouts and peak hours. It's designed to provide 100 megawatts of electricity in addition to the state's other power stations and generators in order to cater for a possible peak demand of around 3000 megawatts.

In Liebman's opinion, the battery will be used in this way for "system security purposes" in providing additional support to local areas of the South Australian grid that experience a lack of energy, particularly if current generators experience shortfalls or the wind drops off and wind farms can't provide enough electricity.

"In situations like as happened in the past in South Australia, with the chance there'll be blackouts in certain areas, there should be a way for the battery to act as a backup to support inadequate amounts of capacity for generation," he said.

"If the wind drops off or if there's a fault that happens near a network or a power station trips offline, this battery can rapidly respond for a short amount of time to provide voltage and frequency support in that local area until the rest of the generators in the system catch up and whatever other adjustments need to be made by the system operator.

"It basically becomes a resource for system stability and security to protect against voltage and frequency disturbances."

What Are The Advantages?

Both Liebman and Saman were in agreement that the obvious benefit is that the Tesla Powerpack will be the world's biggest battery storage system.

The next biggest perk is that the use of lithium ion technology is cheap, modular and provides an opportunity for expansion into new forms of batteries.

"It's the biggest electrical battery installation that there'll ever have been," Liebman said.

"It's the largest lithium ion battery which is the newest commercial-ready battery technology. This scale is new and it's reasonably efficient and reasonably affordable.

"It's modular, it's easier to deploy in different sizes, it's a well understood technology in terms of what it costs to make it and maintain it. We know how to produce it in large quantities and we do know its characteristics and the way it behaves.

"This is one of the best prospects for battery storage at the moment and will be a good learning experience to see how quickly we can build these and how cheap we can get them over time to make sure that we get the lowest cost solution possible."

Saman also told HuffPost Australia the move will be seen as a chance for companies around the world to develop newer battery models in the future at a cheaper price, and for South Australia to continue growing into the renewable energy sector.

"It's obviously good to have the largest piece of technology in South Australia at the moment but I'm sure over time there'll be many other installations around the world, including in Australia and South Australia, and there will be many companies starting to develop similar batteries using similar lithium ion technology or other technology," he said.

"Many companies around the world, including in Australia, are looking at developing more battery technology, and as we get more and more of them they get cheaper.

"The plus side is that, with South Australia in particular being one of the highest parts of the world depending on renewables, almost half of our energy is now being supplied by renewables.

"This offers a number of technological challenges and opportunities -- there's a lot of learning to be gained from operating batteries in a so called smart-grid."

And What About The Disadvantages?

If you posed this exact question to the Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, he'd probably tell you what he told reporters in Adelaide in July -- the renewable energy project is comparable to the world's biggest banana and the world's biggest prawn and is "not a solution" to Australia's energy crisis.

Yes, he actually said those things.

Morrison has been attacking Musk recently for being "Hollywood" and "showbiz" and labelled Tesla's battery solution as nothing more than a "bright, shiny" distraction.

"By all means have the world's biggest battery, have the world's biggest banana, have the world's biggest prawn like we have on the roadside around the country, but that is not solving the problem," Morrison said.

"Thirty thousand South Australian households could not get through watching one episode of Australia's Ninja Warrior with this big battery. So let's not pretend it is a solution. We will take it, but it is not solving the problem.

"We need to address the big picture, the big structural energy issues."

The question now is: was he right? According to Liebman, it really depends on how you think about what the battery is designed to do.

Daniel Kalisz via Getty Images
South Australia was plunged into darkness last year following a severe storm that caused mass blackouts.

Liebman said the battery will work fine as a backup storage system designed to shoot short-term power out to South Australian homes if there's ever a shortage. However, he acknowledged that it shouldn't be seen as the be-all and end-all solution to South Australia's energy problems on its own and wouldn't be able to single-handedly weather another 50-year storm.

"There's no real risks of not doing what it's imported to do," Liebman said.

"You have to understand what its limitations are. It's not the fastest battery in the world in terms of it charging. It looks to be fast enough for the purpose for which it was designed.

"The question is will it protect South Australia against blackouts in all circumstances? And the answer is probably not.

"It's unlikely that it could have helped in [this year's storm]. No system in the world of that type could have sustained that and kept operating.

"[The project] can sustain short term problems [but]... it's not on its own, with that size battery, going to make a huge difference."

Indeed, these concerns have been raised by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who lashed out at the plan and labelled it an experiment that illustrates "ideology and idiocy".

Instead, he vouched for his own party's $2 billion Snowy Hydro expansion scheme.

"Idiocy is just as important as ideology," Turnbull told Liberal Party faithful in mid-August.

"What we are doing is not buying a battery at huge expense that would be helpful if you are 100 megawatts short for an hour, but not very helpful if you are, say 150 megawatt short for one hour, or two hours.

"What we are doing is putting in place the largest storage, pumped hydro storage in the Southern Hemisphere, Snowy Hydro 2.0".

Why Has It Taken This Long?

It may seem that last year's widespread blackouts were the catalyst for Elon Musk's intervention in the Australian energy sector. But Saman said he believes it has more to do with the marketing capabilities of Tesla and the star pull of Musk himself.

He told HuffPost Australia the lithium ion battery technology is not exactly something you would call new considering it's already present in mobile phones and laptops. The tipping point, of course, was that Tesla was able to market its project as the world's largest with the possibility of being free-of-charge for the South Australian Government.

In other words, despite there being other Australian companies that have been working with lithium ion battery technologies, Weatherill needed someone with the funds, stature and innovative capacity as Elon Musk and Tesla.

"[Tesla] are mass producing the battery which is making its cost go down and they're very good at marketing at that," Saman said.

"There's a lot of elements in marketing and saying they'll install it in 100 days otherwise its free. In Australia we've [also] had a number of companies either developing new technologies or working with overseas organisations to provide and supply similar systems."

Is This The Only Thing The SA Government Is Doing?

While the Tesla Powerpack plan might seem like the South Australian Government's hidden ace when it comes to the state's power woes, there's a bit more to it.

The agreement struck between Musk and Weatherill actually came as part of a $500 million plan aimed at preventing a repeat of the energy catastrophe during the 2016 blackouts.

The Jamestown battery is one of six core outcomes of the Weatherill energy plan, with the bulk of the efforts depending on South Australia building a $360 million state-owned 250MW gas-fired power plant to provide emergency back-up power while the Government continues to procure temporary back-up generation when needed.

"It is a plan for the 21st century. It is a plan to take our clean, green, renewable resources and use them to create an energy future for our State and indeed for our nation," the South Australian Premier told media in March.

Among other aspects of the plan there will be incentives to use local "abundant" gas reserves and a state "Energy Security Target" will be introduced to ensure SA's power system uses more clean local energy.

Additionally, the SA Government announced on August 1 it is also looking at operating nine new, temporary General Electric hybrid turbines in Lonsdale and Elizabeth which will run on diesel before being incorporated into the gas power plant.

The turbines are capable of producing up to 276MW of energy and will only produce electricity when there is a shortfall in demand, thus preventing similar load-shedding blackouts as seen in 2016.

Further to that, a $650 million, 150MW solar thermal power plant was also announced on August 14 for Port Augusta and tipped as "the biggest of its kind in the world".

"This, in addition to our state-owned gas plant, and the world's largest lithium ion battery, will help to make our energy grid more secure," Weatherill said of the move.

Ultimately, this supercharged project comes down to the vision of Elon Musk. And so far, so good, according to the Tesla mogul.

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