SolarCity launches community microgrids with Tesla batteries

March 27, 2015 by Jeremy C. Owens, San Jose Mercury News
SolarCity launches community microgrids with Tesla batteries

SolarCity, well-known for rooftop solar systems, is expanding to so-called microgrids, larger power systems that can be tapped by communities when the power grid goes down.

The systems, which add generators and software to manage the power to standard solar panels, will include Tesla Motors batteries to store the energy generated. While the owner can tap the solar power for daily use, the main purpose is to maintain electricity in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane.

"There has been a dramatic increase in the last few years - climate-related, almost certainly - and its led to more grid outages," SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass noted, pointing to the storm known as Sandy that hit the Northeast last year as a prominent recent example.

The company is targeting cities that are in the line of fire for such catastrophic events for the new service.

"Traditionally, microgrids have been used in campuses, medical facilities and military bases, and we will pursue some of those opportunities if they become available," said Daidipya Patwa, who is leading SolarCity's microgrid efforts, "but our primary target is municipalities, communities and areas with a weak grid or no grid at all."

That focus opens up a potentially large market, said GTM Research analyst Shayle Kann.

"Any municipality in a region that is prone to some kind of natural disaster ... they have a few key locations that they need to keep running in the event of an outage or a natural disaster - a community center where they're going to house people or police stations," the analyst said.

This will also be the first major effort overseas for SolarCity, as the company shops its microgrids to island nations with poor power grids. While Bass said the bulk of its microgrid business will focus on the United States and North America, he noted that it will be the first international work for SolarCity aside from its charitable work to provide lights at schools in the developing world.

These types of systems have the potential to make a big difference in the developing world, Kann said.

"Ultimately, it seems like this solution could be used to electrify rural areas in the developing world or to provide better reliability in places where the grid goes down a lot," the analyst explained.

SolarCity will attempt to squeeze into a market segment with a product better than home tinkerers can build and less expensive than larger rivals.

"The approach to microgrids to date has largely been either piecing something together from some small equipment vendors or you go at the high end, to a GM or Siemens and pay upward of $10 million for a massive solution that may not be, from a budget standpoint realistic, especially for a rainy-day solution," Bass noted.

SolarCity hopes to tap economies of scale to accomplish its goal: The San Mateo company acquired Fremont solar panel manufacturer Silevo last year and plans to build a large solar panel factory in New York, while Tesla Motors - run by SolarCity Chairman and investor Elon Musk - builds a massive "Gigafactory" for the lithium-ion batteries that the microgrid systems will use.

"(Tesla is) manufacturing advanced technology at a scale that's just not seen anywhere else, and we absolutely expect that to drive the cost down over time," Bass said.

While SolarCity seems to have a road map that will allow it to build microgrids for interested customers, the question will be whether there will be enough communities willing to take the plunge, Kann said.

"The operative question is how big this will be for SolarCity, and more broadly, how big the microgrid market will be in general," he said.

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36 comments

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JamesG
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 27, 2015
""There has been a dramatic increase in severe weather events the last few years - climate-related, almost certainly"

And 2 articles up from this one on Phys.org (3/27/15) is an article that says climate change does not cause extreme weather events. Fluctuations will become more and more rare.
691Boat
4.5 / 5 (8) Mar 27, 2015
JamesG,
did you even bother reading the other article?
a) it specifically mentions extreme WINTER weather events.
b) from the article you mentioned: "Despite lower temperature variance, there will be more extreme warm periods in the future because the Earth is warming," says Schneider. The researchers limited their work to temperature trends. Other extreme events, such as storms with heavy rain or snowfall, can still become more common as the climate warms, as other studies have shown.

fmfbrestel
4 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2015
James -- I know you think that you and Ted Cruz are the new Galileo's to the liberal media's flat earth society. But the reality is exactly the opposite.
MR166
1 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2015
Backup power using Tesla ie. Li batteries is hugely expensive. Musk is yet again looking a business that depends on the largess of government. This is crony capitalism at its worst. Real facilities that seriously depend on reliable power use diesel backup generators.
Alberto_Knox
5 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2015
I have thought that if LI became more affordable a microgrid like this could be used to shed load in surge demand situations. Large office facilities or multi-family could be dropped from the grid intermittently to prevent brownouts during heat waves. this in addition to providing service interruption protection.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2015
"Large office facilities or multi-family could be dropped from the grid intermittently to prevent brownouts during heat waves. this in addition to providing service interruption protection."

We already have a solution to that problem. It's called stop shutting down much needed power plants.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
"Real facilities that seriously depend on reliable power use diesel backup generators."
----------------------------------------

Yes, but now that there is an alternative, they will change over. 166 may not understand the benefits of replacing Filthy Fuels.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
We are changing the granularity of our grids with microgrids which can be self-supporting if other grid sections fail. PV and wind are enabling this trend, which gives us more reliability, not less, since one event will not take out everybody. Those not in the field get this all mixed up.
flying_aries3
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
"While the owner can tap the solar power for daily use, the main purpose is to maintain electricity in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane."

So it mainly get used about 1% of the time, then? And how do all those nice flat panels fare in a 120mph hurricane wind?
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
"So it mainly get used about 1% of the time, then? And how do all those nice flat panels fare in a 120mph hurricane wind?"
----------------------------------

No, they will be used all the time, but also ready for the 1% of the time utility power is not available. Do you REALLY think you understand more about mounting panels than the engineers?
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
I had envisioned solid oxide fuel cells with natural gas feeds replacing substations. It looks like other technologies may supersede it.
MR166
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
""The approach to microgrids to date has largely been either piecing something together from some small equipment vendors or you go at the high end, to a GM or Siemens and pay upward of $10 million for a massive solution that may not be, from a budget standpoint realistic, especially for a rainy-day solution," Bass noted.

SolarCity hopes to tap economies of scale to accomplish its goal...."

A roof top home solar system with no storage costs about $20K to install so $10 million services 500 homes. This is hardly a "Massive Solution" when you add in the cost of LI batteries which could be more than the solar cells. So lets put the actual $$$ aside and see how this would work in the North East protecting us from a large ice or snow storm. Great plan except for the fact that the solar cells would have no output due to the fact that ice and snow were covering them.

Is anyone else tired and exasperated listening to this green feel good BS that WE will have to pay for?
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
"Backup power using Tesla ie. Li batteries is hugely expensive"
-------------------------------------------

But worth it: European utilities are already using large battery sites for power correction. Homes and businesses with them can and will sell that capacity to the power companies when they need it. It is still cheaper than building and fueling and cleaning up from large combustion-based powerplants.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2015
European utilities are already using large battery sites for power correction
Uh no, no theyre not.

"A grid storage trial which has been billed as the largest of its kind in Europe became operational yesterday... A 6MW/10MWh lithium-ion battery has been installed at a substation in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire as part of a two-year trial."

"A large scale 'battery park' has gone online in West Meklenberg, Germany... The battery power plant has a rated power output of 5MW and a capacity of 5MWh... WEMAG's grid has around 800MW of renewable energy capacity installed, which generated around 80% of the energy used in the company's serviced grid area"

-One trial and one very small commercial installation. Thats it.

More bullshit from the king of kranks.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
Are they using it or not? It is so new, they are just now building the ones for commercial sales. Look those up.

Thanks for reporting "WEMAG's grid has around 800MW of renewable energy capacity installed, which generated around 80% of the energy used in the company's serviced grid area" to let us see how one utility gets 80% of its power from renewable sources, and how battery installations can round out fluctuations. Those installations were primarily for reactance control, but that would take a lot of explaining to you.

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2015
already using large battery sites for power correction
One very small 5MW facility at one 800MW site. THATS IT.

Your penchant for idiot hyperbole comes from drugs maybe? The VA keep you supplied?
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2015
Yup. And it works.

What you got, . . . "Clean Coal"?? Shall we compare the futures of the two technologies?
MR166
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
"But worth it: European utilities are already using large battery sites for power correction. Homes and businesses with them can and will sell that capacity to the power companies when they need it. It is still cheaper than building and fueling and cleaning up from large combustion-based powerplants."

Yup, that is why the electric rates in Germany are 3x the US rates.
MR166
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
"What you got, . . . "Clean Coal"?? Shall we compare the futures of the two technologies?"

Oh yea, one source of cheap energy is being regulated out of business by the same government that is subsidizing a less cost effective source of energy and you wonder which future is brighter. What a laugh! Next you will complain that the poor keep getting poorer and the government sponsored 1% keeps getting richer. Why could that be?????
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2015
Sorry, 166, but you are one of those who need a course in Environmental Economics so you would know the true cost of burning fossil fuels. What economists like to call "externalities" are the costs borne by others. They are primarily health costs, which are around 30 times the costs of cleaning up at the source, but the polluters do not pay it, so they do not care.
MR166
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
" What economists like to call "externalities" are the costs borne by others. They are primarily health costs, which are around 30 times the costs of cleaning up at the source, but the polluters do not pay it, so they do not care."

For the last 30 years or so the US has been introducing legislation that will be paid for by "lowering health care costs". Yet,,,,, during that same 30 years health care costs have been skyrocketing a large multiples to the rate of inflation. I contend that your cost benefit analysis is highly flawed.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
Are you really serious? Are you not aware health insurance companies take 29% of our health care dollars in pay and profits? We can do it ourselves for 3%.
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2015
Thanks for reporting "WEMAG's grid has around 800MW of renewable energy capacity installed, which generated around 80% of the energy used in the company's serviced grid area" to let us see how one utility gets 80% of its power from renewable sources


That isn't strictly true. The energy production corresponds to 80% of the energy used, but the actual energy used comes from elsewhere as the renewable energy is necessarily routed all over Germany. The local users simply cannot absorb most of it.

Hence why they're investing in batteries.

...the true cost of burning fossil fuels. What economists like to call "externalities" are the costs borne by others. They are primarily health costs


In another article, I gave you a link to an EPA study that showed the US energy sector externalities amount to about 35% increase in cost over base energy prices in terms of health costs.

The externalities cost less than the current cost of most renewable technologies.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2015
Are you really serious? Are you not aware health insurance companies take 29% of our health care dollars in pay and profits? We can do it ourselves for 3%.


What do you mean by "do it ourselves"?

Anyways, the fundamental problem is that money means economic activity. In order to pay for the energy, there needs to be that much productive activity elsewhere, so high cost renewables have the counter-intuitive effect of causing more pollution.

So what is really happening is, more oil is being turned to plastic, more forest is being leveled for paper, more gas is burned to drive to work and sell more disposable products to get the money to pay for the new wind turbine or solar panel.

The energy from the turbine or panel isn't being used to pay for itself because it costs e.g. $75/MWh whereas industrial heat from natural gas comes in at something like $10/MWh so the factories that make the parts are burning gas instead.
MR166
not rated yet Mar 29, 2015
"Are you really serious? Are you not aware health insurance companies take 29% of our health care dollars in pay and profits? We can do it ourselves for 3%."

That is pure BS. Prove the 3%. Also Pre AHA if you went to a hospital or doctor and paid the bill out of pocket you could expect to pay at least double the amount that an insurance company would be charged. Some tests are 4x more money when you self pay.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 29, 2015
Are you really serious? Are you not aware health insurance companies take 29% of our health care dollars in pay and profits? We can do it ourselves for 3%.
But the VA provides the very same pharmaceutical benefits which I'm guessing are the source of your idiot hyperbole. You'd pay a lot more than 3% on the street you know.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 29, 2015
You know nothing about the VA, otto, one must have SERVED to be eligible.

You have done nothing.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 29, 2015
So what is really happening is, more oil is being turned to plastic,"
--------------------------------------

Yes, Eikka, feedstocks turned into products instead of turning to pollution. It is what petroleum will be used for in the future.
24volts
not rated yet Mar 29, 2015
"Backup power using Tesla ie. Li batteries is hugely expensive"
-------------------------------------------

But worth it: European utilities are already using large battery sites for power correction. Homes and businesses with them can and will sell that capacity to the power companies when they need it. It is still cheaper than building and fueling and cleaning up from large combustion-based powerplants.


You mean large coal combustion power plants don't you? A modern gas power plant doesn't really leave any land pollution behind.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2015
Besides the residues of lubricants, solvents, and whatever? But you are correct, no thousands of tons of toxic fly ash, and no Mercury vapor or radionuclides as with coal.
EyeNStein
not rated yet Mar 30, 2015
As PV becomes more affordable and more common we have already reached the point where the power company has to pay some people to go offline during peak production.
If this energy was instead buffered/stored at the grid switchgear locations: It would prevent this overload and loss scenario. And be where it can be switched in as a island backup.
This also means that the domestic PV inverters, which must have Anti-Islanding shutdown, can stay online in an emergency backup situation without redesign and without loss of safe control for maintenance at the grid switchgear point.
gkam
1 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2015
"As PV becomes more affordable and more common we have already reached the point where the power company has to pay some people to go offline during peak production."
-----------------------

Where is that?

EyeNStein
not rated yet Mar 31, 2015
If you Google for "PV overload grid payment" then UK, California, Hawaii, New Jersey are shown on page one.
If the UK which is not particular sunny (I knew of this example) has to pay to shut down excess renewables capacity: Then most sunny regions with a high domestic generation capacity should be planning local grid storage solutions for this otherwise wasted capacity.
Though bulk molten sodium and sulphur batteries would be cheaper than Lithium car batteries.
gkam
1 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2015
You will have to show me. All I find is a 2011 article of how they did not plan well at first in Australia.
gkam
1 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2015
Actually, those are utility efforts to restrict PV for business reasons.
EyeNStein
not rated yet Apr 01, 2015
This article mentions the UK payments to windfarms to stop producing spreading to PV farms; and the UK grid overload potential of not buffering/storing renewable energy:-

http://www.telegr...rks.html

And yes other stories like the grid owners refusing, or downsizing, permission to PV 'farmers' (pun intended) does sound a little like grid commercial self interest.

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