Elon Musk didn’t need 100 days after obtaining a connection agreement to switch on the Tesla big battery in South Australia. In fact, it took him less than 100 minutes.
That’s how quickly the battery was up and running after the ink dried on the connection deal with the state’s transmission company ElectraNet on Friday.
By the early evening, some 300 Tesla Powerpacks already in place were delivering all the power for the unveiling event, stored from the adjoining Hornsdale wind farm, a three-hour drive north of Adelaide.
Of course, it’s not all in place yet. About half is installed – 30MW/65MWh out of 100MW/129MWh it has contracted to build – and it has yet to fully engage with the grid.
But it has only taken two months since Tesla won a South Australia government tender to get this far, and despite some hints that a demonstration was in the wind, the 500 or so invited guests were stunned by what they saw.
“So much has been done in an incredibly short period of time,” Musk said at the unveiling on Friday night. “Talk is cheap, action is difficult … but this it is not just talk, this is reality.”
And, Musk noted – ominously enough for the fossil fuel interests looking on from afar – this is just the start of what he expects will be a rapid transition to renewables.
“The vast majority of the world is still fossil fuel powered and this is really just the beginning. But what this serves as is a great example to the rest of the world of what can be done.
Talking to some of the energy market officials, developers and investors at the event, it seems clear that battery storage installations like this will mushroom across Australia in coming years.
Some are already well flagged: Neoen, which owns and will operate the South Australia big battery, plans another 20MW/34MWh storage facility at the yet-to-be-built Bulgana wind farm in Victoria, there is another 30MW/8MWh facility to be built at the Wattle Point wind farm, not to mention the 250MW big battery proposed by AGL to replace the ageing and decrepit Liddell coal generator.
There is also a smaller battery at the soon to be opened Lakeland solar farm in north Queensland, batteries at the Kennedy solar, wind complex also in north Queensland, pumped hydro at the Kidston solar farm, and dozens of other storage projects.
All will work together to usher in what is likely to be a dramatic transition that will see fossil fuels disappear out one door and renewable technologies enter through another.
Musk told the adoring crowd of around 500 people – and they were adoring – that not a lot of space was needed for the country to be entirely powered by solar and battery storage: around 1/10th the size of greater Sydney, he suggested.
“It’s pretty obvious that if small satellite can be solar and battery-powered, then big ones can too,” Musk said.
“There’s no scalability constraint so I think people aren’t quite sure how big is it actually and it’s really not. It’s like quite small. And very doable.
“That is actually what the future will look like and the faster we get there the better.
“It matters whether we make the transition to sustainable energy in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. It really is going to make a difference. We’re doing everything we can to accelerate it and by working with people like Jay and his team that enable this to happen, and with your support as well.”
Some people like to mock Musk and dismiss Tesla as an aberration, a spectacular fire-work that will lose its flame and inevitably fall to the ground. The financial position of some sellers, the many “short-sellers” in his stock, depend on it.
But Musk’s track record speaks otherwise. Already, he has successfully turned the space industry on its head by becoming the first to use re-useable rockets, and just hours before unveiling the big battery, he was in Adelaide outlining “aspirational” plans for moon projects, a landing on Mars by 2022, and using those massive rockets (he calls them BFRs – big f******* rockets) to link the world’s biggest cities in around 30 minutes.
Musk has also delivered a luxury, high performing electric vehicle (Model S and X)) before anyone else had through of it, and he attracted the world’s longest waiting list for what will be the first “mass market” EV (Model 3), and his company is valued as much as GM with just a fraction of its sales.
Such is his cachet that he managed to turn the Tesla Powerwall battery storage unit into a household brand even before anyone had any installed. There is still a long queue for deliveries. The bigger Powerpacks are now being used in California, South Australia and elsewhere to provide grid security and balancing for renewables.
He now threatens to upturn the road freight industry in a few weeks with the unveiling of the Tesla Semi, a fully electric truck. Incumbents disrupted in every corner.
He has even established the Boring company focused on digging tunnels to fulfil another aspirational goal of “hyperloops”.
And there is no reason to think that his energy vision will be any different. Satellites were powered by solar and batteries for decades, he noted on Friday, and Earth was just another satellite of the sun. So, why not?
Musk’s vision of the energy future – a scenario it should be noted that is viewed as entirely plausible and affordable by market operators, network owners, researchers and investors the world over – is in sharp contrast to what conservatives are offering.
While Musk is talking solar and storage, and other technologies of the future, Australia’s Coalition government is attempting to throw technology development in reverse – brandishing lumps of coal in parliament, comparing the big battery to the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, looking to extend the life of an ageing and decrepit coal generator in the name of “reliability and cost” and voicing support for a new coal generator in north Queensland.
In the time taken to build such a plant, South Australia will likely have installed half a dozen large-scale battery storage projects, dozens of smaller ones, the country’s first large-scale solar tower with molten salt storage, several pumped hydro projects and yet more wind and solar plants, and probably another half a gigawatt of rooftop solar.
The ageing Whyalla steel plant, which once saw its future tied only to an ageing and decrepit coal generator, will be at the forefront of these new technologies – and introducing them to its operations in Victoria and NSW.
It’s little wonder that South Australia government is contemptuous of the attempts by the Coalition – at both local and federal level.
‘There were lots of people making jokes about South Australia and making fun out of our leadership in renewable energy,” premier Jay Weatherill said in his introduction.
“Now they are laughing on the other side of their face, because South Australia is leading the world on renewable energy technologies.”
And, all of a sudden, it looks less like an “experiment” that Weatherill rather excitedly, and possibly unwisely, described it when caught up with the passion of the Paris climate conference.
“It is the breakthrough that we have been waiting for,” says energy minister Tom Koutsantonis. “It will change and revolutionise the way we use power, how we generate power, and how much we pay for power.
“We have 700MW of installed solar, 1700MW of wind, we are at the beginning of a brave new world where you can harness the wind and the sun, and schedule firm energy.”
And there is more to come. The state government’s Renewable Energy Development Fund, to finance innovative new technologies that can strengthen the grid, has attracted huge interest, Koutsantonis says, and the details will be unveiled soon.
Of course, it is not just the technology that is changing, but the management of the grid. AEMO is now taking a pro-active prudent approach rather than falling asleep at the controls as it was accused of doing – including by Koutsantonis – in the key events of the past year.
“AEMO are acting more prudently and more defensively, and I congratulate them.” Koutsantonis says.
This, he says, is what a transitioning grid needs. “Things are moving very, very quickly. I say to the naysayers. It is real, it is here.”
Koutsantonis returned just last week from a trip to the US, and a visit to Tesla headquarters. Like Queensland and the Northern Territory, South Australia would like to play host to a battery “gigafactory”.
Tesla hasn’t said whether it will or not. But things have a habit of moving quickly.
After all, it’s involvement in the big battery was only prompted by that now famous tweet by Australian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Musk remembered that at the unveiling event on Friday. “One tweet leads to another,” he said. “I saw this on Twitter and I was like ‘Ok, sure … can we do that?’ . It turned out the could.
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.