Elon Musk’s keynote address last week, at which he took the wraps off a much-anticipated battery technology, was fascinating to watch.
Firstly, here was a South African-born entrepreneur and inventor — his accent still giving away his heritage, despite 27 years living in Canada and the US — standing on a stage and attracting the interest of millions around the world.
The Pretoria-educated Musk, 43, who left South Africa in 1988, when he was 17, is now regularly compared to great inventors like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Some have called him the next Steve Jobs.
Yet Musk’s keynote was almost the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect in the high-technology industry. His presentation lacked the stage-managed theatrics of Apple, Google and Microsoft keynotes. Instead, when a slightly nervous-looking Musk took to the stage, he stammered a little through his presentation.
He still managed to crack a few jokes, though, and kept the audience lapping up his every word.
Musk’s performance was by no means off the cuff, but it lacked bombast. The keynote was the better for it. After all, Musk wasn’t debuting the latest iteration of a me-too smartphone, but rather something that has the potential to change the world.
His stated goal is no less than weaning humanity off planet-warming fossil fuels. And why not? After all, this is the man who builds advanced space rockets and who wants to help colonise Mars to ensure mankind becomes an interplanetary species.
Tesla Energy’s Powerwall, the subject of Musk’s keynote, is by no means revolutionary. Countless South Africans have already reduced their reliance on the grid by installing similar solutions, usually involving inverters and car batteries.
But Musk’s wall-mounted battery battery solution for homes and businesses is the first such product that could gain meaningful scale globally and, when tied to solar panels, could have a real impact on minimising millions of people’s reliance on dirty energy sources.
The Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery designed to store energy at a residential level for load shifting (using battery power when grid prices are higher, for example) as well as for backup power and self-consumption of solar power generation.
To South Africans fed up with Eskom’s rolling blackouts, this must seem like manna from heaven. With prices starting at R36 000 (excluding taxes, duties, inverters, installation and optional solar panels), the Tesla technology is likely to prove a popular way among well-to-do South Africans of lessening their reliance on Eskom.
Available in 7kWh and 10kWh configurations, it consists of a lithium-ion battery pack, liquid thermal control system and software that receives commands from a solar inverter. The wall-mounted unit is integrated with the local grid.
The company is developing bigger and more robust solutions for business customers, too. Indeed, Musk’s technology is highly scaleable and could even be used by utility companies to provide electricity to entire cities.
Tesla is grouping 100kWh “battery blocks” to scale from 500kWh to 10MWh and more. Musk says it’s designed to be “infinitely scaleable”.
Utilities will be able to store solar power and offer it into the grid at peak demand times, for example. They will also be able to use the technology as a buffer while power output from a large generation source, such as a power station, is brought up or down.
Musk has open-sourced the patents behind the technology, allowing other companies to build similar systems of their own. In his keynote, he actively encouraged this. He seems genuinely interested in developing the global market as quickly as possible to lessen the reliance on fossil fuels, even if that means handing a big slice of it to other companies.
“Once we’re able to rely on renewable energy sources for our power consumption, the top 50% of the dirtiest power generation resources could retire early. We would have a cleaner, smaller, and more resilient energy grid,” Tesla says in a statement.
For many South Africans, the first prize will be having a reliable source of power. Helping save the planet may be a secondary consideration.
- Duncan McLeod is founder and editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
- This column is also published in the Sunday Times