Paul Savage is CEO of Nextek Power Systems and chairman of the EMerge Alliance.
Tesla Model S and Power Wall use the same li-ion battery cells. (Photo Credit: Tesla)
What has been Elon Musk’s greatest innovation? Commercializing space flight? No. Popularizing electric vehicles? No – he’s got a lot of competition there, too. Revolutionizing mass transit? –That has drawn some attention.
It is none of these. The breakthrough Musk has initiated that will not stop, and stands on par with his well-publicized, easy-to-marvel-at public ventures, is so vast that most people can’t see it. But it’s of such great consequence that it will touch the lives of nearly everyone on this earth in the coming generation.
Musk has pierced a barrier that has held back innovation and kept lower prices at bay by addressing two markets with a common part. We are seeing the first sharing of key power components between stationary systems like those found in buildings, and electronic systems increasingly found in vehicles since the invention of the semiconductor. This makes the acquisition of SolarCity seem brilliant in terms of alignment for long-term growth.
The history-making part that crosses this chasm? It’s a little cylindrical battery that looks a lot like what you buy at Walgreens, but with lithium-ion guts which powers laptops today. Musk cannily based the sexy Tesla fleet, and the Power Wall that acts as a building’s energy reservoir, on this proven low cost design. He andPanasonicare setting out to make billions of them at a gigafactory in Nevada, and they have two huge markets to go into. This is a first.
It is fitting that the first component to show-up in both places is a battery. Batteries not only store energy, but they also naturally buffer systems’ idiosyncrasies and the changing demands people make on their appliances. Most befitting of all its characteristics is that the battery is a direct current (DC) device.
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DC is the blood of our Digital Age, and the common currency of all electronic devices.
The evidence of real progress towards this break-through, however, would not come until Tesla introduced the Power Wall in 2015 containing the same storage component found in their cars. This tearing-open of the parts supply chain between the automotive world and the stationary one will unleash new interoperability between these systems and parts commonality that will have profound effects on both markets.
The resulting scalable DC microgrids will help bring energy access more quickly to the 1.5 billion or so people that have none, greater efficiency and flexibility to those at the top of the economic pyramid, and good new elements of each to the people in between.
The manufacturing and logistics supply chain for these domains will also change for the better: buildings will benefit from the automotive engineer’s focus on efficiency and reliability, and the EV and Hybrid EV markets will benefit from demand 3X greater for its components from the stationary power systems’ use of these common components and sub-systems, thus lowering prices.
From my point of view, Musk’s biggest fish is well-hooked and it’s a catalyst like the industrial revolution, but for our digital economy’s infrastructure. This is the kind of deep innovation that moves markets and changes lives. Nice catch!