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Tesla battery could power big change in electricity use

05/04/2015 04:59 EDT | Updated 05/04/2016 05:12 EDT
Those in the Canadian electricity business are still trying to figure out what Tesla's bold battery announcement will mean for the industry.

Tesla Motors envisions home, businesses and industry adopting its new type of batteries that can store electricity for significant amounts of time. At some point, the Powerwall batteries could change how electricity is produced, transported and consumed.

"It was almost impossible not to pay attention to it," said John Rilett, director of distributed generation for Enmax, about Tesla's announcement. "They have a pretty strong track record of new products that do catch on and grow.

"We're watching it, but nobody really knows where it will go."

Enmax is an Alberta utility that operates power plants and the electricity grid in Calgary.

At this point, the use of batteries for homes and businesses is largely theoretical, but those in the electricity industry can envision the potential impact, especially to the type of grid needed.

Right now, power plants produce the majority of electricity in Canada and the power is transferred to homes on transmission lines. Slowly, power grids have had to become two-way as some buildings produce some electricity that is sent back on the grid. Batteries would complicate the situation further and could change how utilities plan future infrastructure.

"Are we going to build something that is large enough to meet peak demand as we have in the past? Are we going to build something that takes into account distributed generation, storage and two-way flows? Through all that mix, what is it going to look like?" said Rilett. "It's going to raise some challenges for sure, but ideally, we will get to a more robust, more flexible, and ultimately a less expensive system to operate than if we continued with business as usual."

If most homes used batteries, centralized power generation becomes more of a backup than a driver, said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Boon for renewables

Tesla's Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be used to store electricity produced by solar panels on homes. Large-scale battery options would be available for commercial customers. Already some corporations south of the border, such as Amazon.com and Target, plan to use Tesla's battery storage system on a limited basis. 

Some analysts have questioned whether the battery is too expensive for most consumers. The suggested price of the system will be between $3,000 and $3,500 US depending on capacity.

Large-scale battery storage projects are currently under development in Alberta. They will mainly be used to store electricity generated at wind farms. Much like solar, the wind doesn't always blow.

"What storage can essentially do is even out so there aren't so many peaks and valleys with wind," said Angela Anderson, spokeswoman for the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO).

On this day in Alberta, wind turbines are producing just 50 MW compared to their capacity of producing 1400 MW on the especially gusty days.

"We have a couple storage projects in our connection queue right now, so we will be going into testing how those will work in the next couple of years," said Anderson. "At the end of the day, at the AESO, we know for sure that storage is coming, and we are looking at how we can properly integrate it into our system."

Tesla plans to ship a limited number of Powerwall batteries in the U.S. beginning this summer before expanding into international markets next year. 

The company is building a factory in Nevada that will begin producing batteries in 2017.

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