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Why Buildings Don’t Have Batteries (Yet)

We have batteries in our future. But before I talk about that I want to talk about batteries in our past. That word, battery, meant something very different at one time. It comes from the French word batterie, which means to drum. It is also used in ballet to describe beaten steps. But it eventually came to be adopted in the English vernacular to represent a group of artillery cannons working in unison, as the French had proven so adept at doing. The only reason that we use the term to describe energy storage cells today was thanks to a young Ben Franklin, who thought that his rudimentary energy storage device made out of glass jars lined with foil looked like a set of guns. (Apparently, his boyish connection with batteries and electro-shock weapons didn’t end there: he once killed and cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, or at least bragged about doing so, which is kind of just as bad.)

Now, thankfully, we no longer envision large death cannons when we use the word battery. Instead, we think of Teslas or The Energizer Bunny™ or the low charge on my phone that I should probably plug in now that I think of it. Batteries have found a place in our hearts as well, we see them as this mysterious night in plastic armor coming to solve our energy needs. Tesla made headlines for their announcement that they have installed 200,000 of their Powerwall systems in homes across the world. That might seem like a lot until you consider that there are around 140 million houses in the US alone.

Make no mistake, batteries are part of the answer to many of our problems. The Biden administration just announced an incredibly aggressive solar initiative, releasing a blueprint for how the nation could create 50 percent of the energy we consume with the sun. Solar is a clean, increasingly economic way to generate energy but it is also quite fickle. The energy that gets produced during the peak sunny hours needs to be saved for later in the day when consumption reaches its height. 

Public utilities are investing in battery storage but they can only do so much. The problem lies with the way our grid was designed. The engineers who took on the monumental task of creating a connected system of energy distribution throughout the entire country did not take into consideration that at some point electricity would be coming from homes as well as going to it. Upgrading a system as big as our electricity grid and doing so through a bureaucracy as thick as our public utility commissions will take a lot of time and even more money. A 2019 study by the energy consulting firm Wood MacKenzie estimates that it could cost up to $4.5 trillion, or about $35,000 per household, in the next 20 years to fully upgrade or “decarbonize” the existing US electric grid. 

So, rather than trying to change our grid to handle all the new energy that is being created from all of the new sources, many think it is best to store the energy where it is generated. For many rooftop solar power systems, that means in the buildings themselves. So why don’t more buildings have batteries? The biggest factor is the cost. One Tesla Powerwall costs around $10,000 and you need two or three to run even basic appliances on them during an outage, which is what most houses opt for. For an entire building, it could take dozens of Powerwalls plus the infrastructure, installation, and service contract to get them on line. Plus, it is important to remember that batteries have a finite shelf life. The Powerwalls’ warranty ends after 10 years, which is significant when compared to the life of a car but much less so when multiplied over the useful life of a building. 

The good news is that battery technology is getting cheaper. Advancements in technology have already made batteries cheaper than many thought possible. The bad news is that this lower cost of production doesn’t always make it to the consumer. An increase in demand for batteries of all sizes has created construction bottlenecks and created shortages for the precious metals like lithium and cobalt that are needed to make them. The congested global supply chain is not helping matters either. Tesla recently said during its first-quarter earnings call that it had a “multi-quarter backlog on Powerwall.”

Batteries are in our future. For us to meet our energy goals we will need them to cohabitate our buildings, big and small. But it isn’t just the battery that will get us through the rainy days ahead. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, incentivize solar panel installs, and reinvent the way that we buy and sell energy. Batteries have become more a part of our lives than Benjamin Franklin would have ever imagined when he was electrifying (or thinking about electrifying) that turkey. As much as that would have amused the easily amusable Franklin, he might ask the very question that we avoid most: “why not just use less power?”

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