24 October 2016
Elon Musk introduces Tesla Energy's battery products. Photo: Internet
Elon Musk introduces Tesla Energy's battery products. Photo: Internet

Are Elon Musk’s Tesla Energy batteries safe?

Personally, I find Silicon Valley’s new darling Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors Inc., a real showoff, but he is not a snake oil salesman.

He is Henry Ford (cars), Wernher von Braun (rockets) and Nikola Tesla (electricity) morphed into one person.

His products are made by old-school high-tech manufacturing, and while he talks the talk, he does walk the walk with real products shipped to customers.

The recent announcement about his new company, Tesla Energy, and its home battery systems to augment renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines is good news for the solar and wind industries if it can make these batteries ubiquitous.

Solar and wind have always been attacked as intermittent power sources.

But with a battery always being charged, that will serve to steady the supply and get rid of the “unstable power” tag.

The other thing I see here is, we may see the rise of direct current (DC) local grids, with appliances running straight off the DC mains.

If you are already generating power nearby, why lose some energy in converting DC to alternating current (AC)?

Just use the power directly with DC aircons, DC refrigerators and so on.

Interesting how he made these Powerpack batteries really scalable, but then again that’s just hype for putting these things in series and parallel configuration.

Early electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla developed AC because of the need to transport electricity over long distances.

But it was Thomas Edison and his General Electric Co. who won public acclaim despite their preference for DC.

A friend of mine found it ironic that Tesla Energy is championing DC given this history.

But is a Tesla Powerwall battery safe?

While lithium-ion batteries have been made in the millions, there are some rare instances where this type of batteries have exploded (for instance, on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or in mobile phones).

While these batteries are safe, in certain rare situations (such as short circuits), any battery can explode.

For Li-ion batteries in particular, the reason given in a February 2013 article in Chemical & Engineering News, an American Chemical Society publication, is: “A potential shortcoming of Li-ion batteries is their flammable electrolyte solutions.

“Unlike other common types of batteries, in which the electrolytes consist of aqueous solutions of acid or base, the electrolyte in Li-ion cells typically consists of lithium salts in flammable organic solvents such as ethylene carbonate and ethyl methyl carbonate.”

I wish someone would try to short-circuit these Tesla Powerwall systems, just to check how fast their protection circuits react.

I wouldn’t strap on a 10 kilowatt electrochemical energy storage system on my wall without knowing that fact.

It doesn’t matter if the brand is Tesla Energy or AC Delco or some other battery maker out there.

I’d prefer to see something like an Underwriters Laboratories or third-party safety certification first.

An August 2013 article in MIT Technology Review said Tesla does use a fast liquid-cooling system that would douse any flame if one were to get started and prevent the spread to other cells, which is good.

The battery also uses a firewall, which adds another level of safety protection.

So while I am extremely happy that Musk has launched Tesla Energy, I would be very interested to know how much reliability and safety testing it plans to do on these batteries before I strap one on my house wall.

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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