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Elon Musk and the Battery of Silent Revolutions


By Dr Raj Aseervatham

When I test-drove a Model S Tesla, I was quietly disappointed. Before you lodge a formal complaint, let me explain, because it is only a marginal disappointment.

It moved like a spaceship. Wait, I haven’t actually ever been in a spaceship per se. Not even Elon Musk's anything-you-can-do-Branson-I-can-do-too rocket. But I have watched enough space movies to know that once we’re in space it’s notably quiet.

When I depressed the accelerator (acutely aware that the term ‘hit the gas’ was now redundant), external surroundings moved with startlingly immediacy from the front of me to the back of me, which was the most significant clue that I was moving. The car dealer in the seat next to me also twitched a bit, which was my second clue that we were attaining commendable velocities instantly. It brought a smile to my face. It doesn’t take much to please me.

And while it falls considerably short of making a full light-year on one tank of electrons, the top-range battery allows distances of 500 kilometers (more than 300 miles) at a respectable pace without refueling.

But there was no throaty roar, so I felt nothing like Steve McQueen, Michael Schumacher or Daniel Ricciardo. Therein lay my disappointment.

Still, it’s all good because I was told by the dealer -- in response to my subsequent whining -- that I could soon get an app on my phone that simulates a throaty roar. Its throatiness is correlated to the Bluetooth-communicated meters-per-second-squared of acceleration. Its pitch is calibrated to an F1-snarl or a Lamborghini growl (or anything in between). The result is pumped through the speakers that Elon Musk reportedly required to be able to ”crank up to 11." Problem solved.

For pedestrians, who may not have this app, encountering a Tesla is a bit like being stalked by a Stealth fighter. A pearly white Model S slunk up behind me at the Gold Coast a few weeks ago. I noticed it a millisecond after I stepped off the curb in front of it. The driver nearly soiled himself as I hastily avoided the dubious honor of being the first martyr to Sexy-Sustainability-on-Wheels -- which would have been unsustainable for me, and therefore would have dented Elon’s claims regarding net gains, not to mention the shell of the delectable car.

Clean cars, dirty energy?

I am happy that car manufacturers like Tesla are focusing on transforming electric vehicles from pottering, distance-challenged, Noddy-like contraptions to Maserati-styled land-sharks. Even if the chassis of the Model S looks just like a massive slab of hundreds of strapped-together batteries covered in a smooth molded shell, and the car currently costs about as much as the quantity of 10-dollar notes you can cram into said chassis, it’s still a pretty good advance of technology.

Yet it’s not all silent applause. Because, obviously, the electricity used to charge these now-sexy machines can come from some grimy sources.

In some places, you’re ecologically better off driving an unsexy hybrid than a curvy spaceship-inspired electric vehicle. And that’s because burning some petrol in your combustion engine is better than burning the brown coal in the regional power station to get the electrons into your whopping electric battery. Here’s an example from the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong. I mean, it’s a giant step for a man to (almost) mainstream commercialize Top Gear performance electric vehicles, and it’s a small step for mankind to have a worthy receptor of clean energy that gets you from A to B and back so quietly. So kudos all round, say I.

Now we just need to get that clean energy delivered.

Tesla gets into the energy storage game

But Elon Musk, who is being compared to Tony Stark of Iron Man fame, is ahead of me.

He is not just a producer of cars. Following some mysterious Tweets from the industrialist early in April about the unveiling on April 30 of a product sans wheels, and the feverish speculation that followed, he is, apparently, poised to become a producer of batteries.

Now, lest you unkindly depreciate his personal brand by comparing him to an Energizer bunny, let me tell you that being a producer of batteries now has Messianic credibility. Because, as you will already know, having cheap batteries that can save large amounts of energy for long periods of time makes you a game-changer. And this is because we now have a wee chance at properly plugging in to our solar system’s ultimate power station, which delivers abundantly clean energy to your rooftops.

This, of course, leads us to the warmly sustainable position of your house soaking up some rays through its solar panels (yesterday's news) and becoming a battery (today's news), or your community becoming a bigger dynamic battery (tomorrow's news). Your house charges up your car any time of the day or night, which then charges silently through your suburban streets and interstate highways -- below the speed limit, of course.

We may already be there. Bloomberg reports that Walmart claims 11 of its stores in California are now installed with Tesla batteries. As you and I both know, the average Walmart store is far larger than the average home and runs a far greater number of electrical appliances. So, now it's just a matter of cost versus scale.

On this trajectory, big power stations become less relevant: We pull down some poles and wires and we decentralize our power supply-versus-demand characteristics.

It’s called a disruptive technology.

In a very quiet package.

Sneaky, Mr Musk. I cheer you in appropriately hushed tones.

Image credit: Flickr/Windell Oskay

Dr Raj Aseervatham is a driving enthusiast and a social and environmental professional who has worked extensively in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas on corporate responsibility and sustainability programs for government, consultancy and private industry.

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