Tesla Gigafactory Adds Microgrid Lab
Tom Lombardo posted on July 29, 2017 | 12456 views

BuildZoom reports that Tesla applied for several building permits, including one to add a microgrid lab to its colossal Gigafactory near Reno NV. It's not clear whether its purpose is to eventually make the Gigafactory self-powered (off-grid) or if it's more of an R&D facility to design and test its products, but the term "lab" and the relatively small price tag ($460k) suggest that it's primarily the latter. (Want to know how difficult it would be for the Gigafactory to go off-grid? I did the math for you.)

Partially-Completed Tesla Gigafactory (image courtesy of Tesla)
Partially-Completed Tesla Gigafactory (image courtesy of Tesla)

Tesla's forays into electric vehicles, solar panels, photovoltaic roofs, energy-storage systems, and now microgrids, may cause people to wonder whether Elon Musk has a case of Attention Deficit Disorder. I'm not that kind of doctor, so I'll leave the ADD diagnosis to a qualified medical professional, but to me, it's pretty obvious that this falls right into the entrepreneur's overall plan: to make his batteries (and associated hardware) the industry standard.

Why Microgrids?

Two words: energy security. Today's electric grid has been described as the most complex "machine" ever created by humanity, and as 23rd Century engineer Montgomery Scott noted, "The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain." Case in point: In 2003, a tree branch hit a power line, causing a short that overloaded the circuit. Ideally, the grid operators could have rerouted power to localize the blackout, but because of a software glitch, the operators were unaware of the short until it was too late; by then, more than 50 million people were left without power, some for up to a week. Hospitals, military bases, and police and fire stations have backup power generators - in effect, their own microgrids - allowing them to stay alive, but residences and businesses were not so fortunate unless they happened to be located in areas that had their own municipal generating plant. If, instead of everyone relying on one central grid, a series of community microgrids were established, massive regional blackouts could be prevented.

Hackers, Terrorists, and Natural Disasters

A few years ago the National Research Council found numerous vulnerabilities in the North American electric grid. More recently, experts have discovered computer malware that's capable of taking down a significant portion of a power grid. The same kind of malware affected Ukraine's grid in December 2016. With minor modifications, it could damage the US power distribution network too. Again, a grid comprised of many microgrids could localize the fault and minimize the damage.

Tesla and Microgrids

Backup generators can deliver power as long as they have fuel, but fuel transportation can be problematic after a natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy caused a massive east coast blackout and also disrupted fuel delivery, leaving those with backup generators in the dark after a few hours. Renewable generation coupled with energy storage eliminates the reliance on diesel, gasoline, or natural gas, keeping the lights on for as long as necessary.

Tesla, of course, wants the energy storage systems to be made of its own Li-ion batteries, which have proven to be reliable, deployable, and scalable. But Li-ion isn't the only game in town; flow batteries are also a good fit for microgrid applications, so Tesla is wise to invest in R&D to keep its technology at the forefront.

The Gigafactory won't be off-grid in the foreseeable future, but I suspect that the microgrid lab will serve as a behind-the-meter energy storage system that will allow the facility to cache excess energy when the solar, wind, and geothermal systems are overproducing, and dip into those reserves when demand exceeds supply. Although Nevada reinstated its net-metering laws, which make "virtual storage" on the grid an attractive alternative to on-site storage, legislators tend to be fickle. Tesla lobbied hard to bring net-metering back to Nevada; I'm guessing that the power companies aren't giving up their quest to kill it again. The microgrid lab will then serve two purposes: advancing the company's R&D and saving money on electrical costs.

Side note to young, energetic engineers with good communication skills: Tesla is looking for a Microgrid Estimator.


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