The data industry is naturally buzzing about the new Tesla Powerwall battery. As a relatively low-cost means to capture and store energy, it makes not only an effective back-up solution but also a means to utilize solar, wind and other renewable sources during long periods of inactivity.
But as with any solution, there are always a few trees in the forest, and with batteries we run the very real risk of simply trading one set of problems for another.
Tesla, of course, is not the first company to develop a high-capacity battery solution, nor is it the first to utilize lithium-ion (Li-ion) as the primary power source. But if initial claims are true, the company has come up with a reliable, easily deployable solution capable of hitting a very reasonable price point of about $350 per kWh, which should make many facilities managers jump for joy. These costs, however, do not include installation, maintenance and other factors, so organizations will need to do some number crunching before signing on the dotted line.
To be sure, Tesla has already lined up some big names to pilot-test the solution. Amazon has agreed to deploy a 4.6 MWh solution at its West Coast facility, part of a broader strategy to transform its entire global infrastructure to 100 percent renewable energy. Target has also signed up for a trial run, as well as smaller firms like Enernoc and Jackson Family Wines in the Sonoma region of California. All of these deployments will likely feature not just the batteries but a full turn-key powertrain architecture featuring support components, management systems and control architectures.
So it is quite natural that everyone from top corporate executives to the environmental lobby is jazzed about the Powerwall battery. And I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but it is important to look at the totality of any energy solution before deciding on its true efficacy – not to block its introduction but to make sure we are aware of what the long-term implications are should the development in question scale up to global industrial levels.
As I and others have mentioned, batteries can do wonders for the immediate environmental question at hand, climate change, but they are by no means environmentally pure. The manufacturing process is highly complex, requiring a lot of energy and a fair number of rare elements that can only be obtained through invasive mining and manufacturing processes. As well, there is the disposal issue to consider. A few hundred batteries safely ensconced within a containment facility is no big deal. Scale up to a few thousand or a few million and it becomes quite the challenge to prevent decaying chemicals from leaching into soil and ground water over the long term.
But even if you consider manufacturing and disposal to be someone else’s problem, there are operational issues to consider. Tesla is no doubt an extremely savvy company and has taken all the necessary precautions to ensure their batteries run safely, but as this video from the University College London shows, Li-ion can produce a runaway chain reaction that can lead to explosion if not managed properly. The process takes less than a second and can be precipitated by all kinds of factors (e.g., an electrical short, mechanical failure, improper installation). Actual incidences of Li-ion explosions are very rare, but people have been burned, badly, when the pack on their power scooter or hedge trimmer goes haywire. An explosion of a 5 MWh installation would really louse up someone’s day.
The takeaway here is that while the Tesla battery is a novel development that will do wonders for data center power and efficiency, it should not be looked on as the answer to our energy problems. A diversity of solutions will likely be the most effective means of powering the data center going forward. Not all of them will be the most efficient or the most reliable, but over any given time period, the enterprise should be able to tap the key advantages of each solution while downplaying the drawbacks.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.