Can the Tesla battery fix Australia's energy problems?

Submitted by peter on Fri, 12/01/2017 - 09:49

South Australia is Australia's state with the biggest energy problems because they chose to switch off their existing carbon based energy sources without first installing alternatives. To hide their stupidity, the politicians purchased the world's largest lithium battery set from Tesla and are pretending the battery is a solution.

The Tesla battery is online now. South Australia needs power for hundreds of thousands of homes for several hours each day. The Tesla battery will handle only thirty thousand homes, less than one twentieth of what is needed, for only one hour, not half the day.

Australia has unlimited coal but coal is dirty and our coal fired power plants are too old to maintain. Australia has huge gas reserves. Gas is slightly cleaner due to some hydrogen content but all the gas is sold overseas, leaving Australians with a massive shortage before using any gas for electricity generation.


Australia is too dry for significant hydroelectric generation and our main source is already used to maximum capacity. Hydroelectric power is facing a good future as pumped storage with something else providing the power to pump water uphill. Our massive hydroelectric plants can then return the water downhill to generate electricity during peak demand.


Wind power is already in use but our "Green" political party bans anything green. South Australia tried to use wind and the wind stopped for days at a time. Wind without backup storage, like a hydroelectric storage system, is almost useless.

There is a theory that wind power sources can be interconnected but most of Australia's population live in an area sharing similar wind patterns. When the wind stops, the wind stops almost everywhere.

The only state with a decent reliable wind source is Tasmania. Tasmania is controlled by the Greens. Tasmania will never convert to green energy.


Solar is a viable source for the cafes focused on serving lunch. For everyone else, we do not have enough solar power in the critical morning and evening peaks. Lithium battery packs are very expensive. Lithium is a poison. Disposing of Lithium batteries is already a nightmare with most ending up in landfill where they poison groundwater.

Lithium is explosively flammable. If every house has solar with lithium storage, the fire brigades will have to stand back from burning houses until the lithium batteries, the Tesla Powerwalls and equivalents, have stopped exploding.

The Tesla battery in South Australia is a massive expense that does not solve their problem. In fact it is only a buffer for the output from one small solar farm for feed into one suburb. What they really need is a pumped hydro system running up their local mountains or a pumped electrolyte system in every housing estate.

Flow batteries

Pumped electrolyte systems are the future for medium size groups of houses and businesses. Another name is "flow battery". You need only a battery of a size required to supply power for a short time. You then add cheap tanks to store electrolyte. Peak solar power output in the middle of the day can charge your first tank for use in the evening when solar power stops. Excess solar power can top up several other tanks for those peak days when the nights are so hot that people run air-conditioning all night.

Pumped electrolyte does not require endless additional batteries, just more tanks and electrolyte. The current systems are a bit too complex for household use and fit community use. How would they work for South Australia?

South Australia had a power loss for several days due to a number of things coinciding including a lack of wind. They need power for 770,000 houses, not the 30,000 the Tesla battery can supply. They need the power for over 100 hours, not the one hour the Tesla battery can supply to just 30,000 houses. A simple calculation shows they need over 2500 of the current Tesla batteries. With flow batteries, that could be just a few hundred flow batteries with a thousand big tanks.

Flow batteries include a wider range, all the way out to hydrogen generation plants coupled with fuel cells. You do not need massive generators or fuel cells, just big tanks to cover the longer term emergencies. Hydrogen or electrolyte, you choose.

Electrolyte based flow batteries cost only one third compared to Lithium. With daily use, Lithium loses half of it's storage capacity in five years. Electrolyte systems require only minor topups to last 20 years.

Lithium fails in hot and cold weather. Pumped electrolyte batteries work from temperatures way above lithium's maximum safe temperature to way down below lithium's minimum efficient temperature. Given Australia's temperature ranges, lithium will have to switch off during peak demands in summer and will need a winter heating system in our colder cities.

Pumped electrolyte, hydrogen flow batteries, and pumped hydro systems are what we need now in a huge quantity. Both pumped electrolyte flow cells and pumped hydro systems are ready to use now. We just need some state governments to stop distracting voters with the Tesla style press releases.

A change of direction

Along with installing real, viable, and useful storage, we need to alter the solar panel subsidies to orient more panels toward the afternoon sun. If all new installations have half the panels facing the afternoon sun instead of the peak midday sun, we would have a far better energy balance for our peak usage, cooling in summer.

When talking solar many years ago, I suggested the panels on the sunny side of the house form a V shape or curve around to maximise morning and afternoon sun. This appeared to be logical based on working from home at the time. Analysis of current usage in Sydney shows that more electricity is used in the late afternoon and less is used in mid morning. We need the midday and afternoon parts of the curve.

In Australia the midday sun is to the north and the afternoon sun to the west. Most solar panels are currently installed facing north to produce the maximum electricity and the maximum subsidies. The government subsidies are based purely on total output. Subsidies for new installations need to increase by several cents in the late afternoon, compared to the middle of the day. The middle of the day subsidies could be trimmed by a couple of cents for new installations.

Invented in Australia

The most popular flow batteries today use the common vanadium based electrolyte, a system invented at one of Australia's leading universities all the way back in 1985. Australia exports vanadium but has to import vanadium flow batteries and vanadium electrolyte. Blame this stupid situation on Australia's federal and state governments who always buy imported goods in preference to locally manufactured goods, destroying Australian manufacturing industries.


Solar and wind power is popular in Australia outside cities where every other source of power is expensive due to transport. Australia has a very long history of using solar hot water. Solar electricity ends up too expensive due to all the support equipment and costs. While solar panels might last 25 years, other expensive parts need frequent replacement. To make solar popular, government subsidies are close to 50%.

Twenty years ago I promoted the idea of solar panels instead of regular roofing, dramatically cutting the cost of installation when used in the construction of a new house. Nobody did anything in Australia. Now the Australian media is jumping to Tesla's tune with Tesla's announcement of expensive solar tiles. All that is really needed is a cheap solar panel fitted with glass in a profile similar to tiles so people can walk on the roof. Look at the scratch and break resistant glass released twenty years ago. You could easily halve the cost of a solar roof.

One big reason for looking at solar now is the massive energy cost rises created by Australia's state and federal governments selling infrastructure to foreign companies who use transfer pricing to move billions outside of Australia while pretending to make a loss here. Add to that, the Australian governments allowing the creation of monopolies in the energy industry.

Take one simple example of a monopoly. When you have excess power to share, you are not allowed to share it at cost. Instead you have to sell it to one of the monopoly companies who then sells it to your neighbours for a massive profit.


The Tesla approach is just a public relations exercise. Install pumped electrolyte and pumped water storage systems. Improve the subsidies for solar panels facing the afternoon sun. Bring manufacturing back to Australia so that green power sources are affordable.