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Elon’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Battery Math
Tesla's "Master Plan" for weather-dependent renewables will require 960 years of Gigafactory battery output.
In 2007, I interviewed Vaclav Smil by email. I asked the Canadian polymath and prolific author a simple question: why are so many people so easily duped when it comes to discussions about energy and power?
He replied: “There has never been such a depth of scientific illiteracy and basic innumeracy as we see today. Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything.”
I am reusing that quote from Smil (who is one of my favorite writers on energy and power) because it’s germane to a report published on Wednesday by Tesla Inc. called “Master Plan Part 3: Sustainable Energy for All of Earth.” The 41-page document is the latest in a shelf-full of studies I’ve endured over the past decade or so that have been produced by academics who work at expensive universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Cal-Berkeley. The studies are packed with elaborate graphics, complicated spreadsheets, and Dallas-size assumptions. And all of them make almost identical claims about how the U.S., or even the entire world, can be powered solely with wind, solar, and batteries, with maybe a lagniappe of nuclear and hydropower on the side. All of them downplay the obvious problems, including the ridiculous amount of land that will be needed, the raging backlash in rural America against the encroachment of big wind and solar projects, the difficulty of building high-voltage transmission, and the need for massive amounts of mining, metals, and magnets to make their schemes work.
In all of those facets, the Tesla paper is familiar. And like the others, it doesn’t contain the word “transformer” even though distribution transformers (and large transformers) are critical pieces of hardware and are in desperately short supply. (See my last piece, “Untransformed.”
Tesla’s Master Plan claims our “current energy economy is wasteful,” and that a “fully electrified and sustainable economy is within reach through the actions in this paper.” Those actions include (again, a familiar list) repowering the grid with renewables, switching to electric vehicles and heat pumps, electrifying high-temperature heat delivery and hydrogen production, sustainably fuel planes and boats, and “manufacture the sustainable energy economy.” Although the paper doesn’t give exact projections, it uses a “20-year horizon” and claims that building the infrastructure for a “sustainable energy economy will cost $10 trillion” while continuing to rely on hydrocarbons will cost, they claim, about $14 trillion.
There’s a peck of other numbers and claims in the scheme, including the ridiculous assumption that 12.2 terawatts of wind energy capacity will require less land than what’s needed for 18.3 terawatts of solar capacity. Further, there’s nothing that helps readers put those numbers into any relevant context.
So I decided to do it for them. As can be seen in the graphic above, Tesla’s top people are claiming that over the next 20 years or so, the countries of the world can install 30.5 terawatts of weather-dependent generation capacity. That’s a bold claim given that it took the U.S. more than a century to reach our current generation capacity of about 1.2 terawatts, which includes all the power plants in the country, including nuclear, solar, hydro, wind, coal, gas, biomass, and oil.
But the number that jumped off the screen when I read the Master Plan was this one: 240. That’s the number of terawatt-hours (TWh) of battery storage the authors of the report say will be needed to make the jump to weather-dependent renewables. I won’t quibble over the number even though it sounds awfully low. (Global electricity production in 2021 was more than 28,000 TWh.)
Nevertheless, it only takes a minute to understand why that 240 TWh of storage is so gobsmackingly silly. First some basics. Recall that 1 TWh is equal to 1,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) and that one Gigafactory can manufacture about 50 GWh of batteries per year.
Tesla currently has 5 Gigafactories. Thus, Tesla’s current battery storage output is, in rough terms, 250 GWh per year. Now recall that the Master Plan requires 240 TWh, which is 240,000 GWh. Therefore, as can be seen in the graphic directly above, producing 240,000 GWh of battery capacity would require the output of all of Tesla’s existing Gigafactories for the next 960 years.
But let’s give Elon Musk and his people the benefit of the doubt and assume Tesla can expand its output ten-fold, to 50 Gigafactories. Even with that mega-expansion, manufacturing 240,000 GWh of storage would still take 96 years. And of course, these calculations assume there’s enough copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, grain oriented electrical steel, wood poles, and other kit that will be needed to massively expand our electric grid and electrify everything. It also assumes that we have enough linemen, electricians, and wrench turners to do all that work, and that inflation, which is running rampant in utility products, slows down. Needless to say, those are very big assumptions.
As Smil told me 16 years ago, we are plagued with scientific illiteracy and innumeracy. And that innumeracy isn’t confined to the general public. It’s also obvious in the executive ranks of Tesla Inc., a company that sports a market capitalization of $580 billion, which by the way, is roughly 12 times that of both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Company.
Someone at Tesla might think about investing in a calculator. Heck, I’m in Austin. I’ll lend them mine.