From Tesla to Mercedes-Benz, automakers become energy companies
Drive your electric car to your solar-powered home, plug it in to charge and enjoy the flexibility provided by the oversized battery parked in the driveway.
It’s a long-sought environmental ideal, but one that may be getting closer to reality as automakers throw their technical expertise and deep pockets more directly into new ventures in the energy business.
“This is the integrated future. You’ve got an electric car, a Powerwall and a Solar Roof. It’s pretty straightforward, really,” Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk explained to Fast Company at a model all-electric neighborhood earlier this summer. “[This] can solve the whole energy equation.”
Aside from the union of Musk’s clean energy empire, with Tesla’s late 2016 acquisition of SolarCity, German luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz launched a U.S. energy division in November. BMW, Ford and other auto companies are also doing their own cenergy storage and vehicle-to-grid pilots with a range of utilities and renewable energy providers.
All told, Greentech Media counted 10 battery “Gigafactories” in the works worldwide as of late June, although Musk has teased several additional Tesla plants. Along with large-scale projects driven by Tesla and a $500 million-plus Daimler factory being built in Germany, businesses in other industries are also investing in battery production infrastructure, including Johnson Controls and a range of global power company consortiums.
A Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast predicts that major automakers such as Volkswagen and Renault will provide demand for a significant amount of new battery manufacturing capacity expected to come online in the next four years. By 2021, Bloomberg expects capacity to reach 278 gigawatt-hours, up from about 103 gigawatt-hours now.
While it’s still relatively early days for putting electric vehicles to work as assets on a changing power grid, home sweet home is emerging as the first battleground for automakers looking to capture market share in the energy storage space.
Take the deal announced this spring between the new standalone outfit Mercedes-Benz Energy Americas and solar panel distributor Vivint Solar, where Mercedes will provide the batteries using the same battery chemistry as the automaker’s cars.
For Vivint Solar COO Brian Christensen, the decision to partner with a company with roots in the car business was easy. He sees a natural fit between Vivint’s focus on residential solar, increasingly in-demand smart home systems and back-up power or storage capacity provided by Mercedes home batteries.
“As I look at how industries are evolving, I think there is a really good fit between the automotive industry and the home,” Christensen said in an interview. “Look at what people spend the most money on.”
With the Vivint and Mercedes-Benz Energy deal, the companies have partnered to offer home battery systems starting at 2.5 kWh, with the potential to add additional modules up to 20 kWh. Rather than leasing the modules like some residential solar systems, the batteries are purchased up front.