Musk’s 100-Day Race to Biggest Battery Starts in South Australia

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  • Tesla, South Australia sign contract for 100 megawatt storage
  • Tesla chief in South Australia to fulfill Twitter-hatched bet

Musk Is in South Australia to Check on Big Battery

A pledge by billionaire Elon Musk to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery system in the Australian outback is ahead of schedule with half the project already complete.

Against a backdrop of almost 100 wind turbines 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of Adelaide, the Tesla Inc. chief executive officer announced a contract for the project had been signed with South Australia’s power distributor, triggering a 100-day self-imposed deadline to install the electricity storage system. 

He also revealed about half the promised capacity of 100 megawatts was already in place on site, meaning Musk should easily beat a deadline to have the unit in place before the power grid comes under the summer strain in December.

Elon Musk

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

The futurist chief executive has turned his attention to Australia as a proving ground for storage technology. He’s betting the power his system saves will staunch the domestic blackouts and gas shortages plaguing one of the world’s largest coal and natural gas exporters.

“To have that done in two months is really pretty amazing,” Musk said in a speech on the site of the battery installation. “You can’t even remodel your kitchen in that amount of time. It serves as a great example to the rest of the world of what can be done."

Read more: All about Elon Musk -- a QuickTake explainer

The system will provide enough power for more than 30,000 homes, about the number that lost power during the state’s blackouts a year ago, Tesla said.

Musk made a bet on Twitter in March that he could install a 100-megawatt storage facility within 100 days or it would be free. A few hours prior to the contract being announced, he unveiled his vision of a rocketship that could travel anywhere on Earth in less than an hour or to distant planets.

South Australia

The stakes are also high for South Australia, the mainland Australian state most reliant on renewable energy. A series of crippling blackouts led to scrutiny of Premier Jay Weatherill’s push to rapidly switch to clean energy sources and raised concern that there wasn’t sufficient baseload power available during the transition.

“There were lots of people that were making jokes about South Australia and making fun of our leadership in renewable energy,” said Weatherill at the event. “Today, they are laughing out the other side of their face.”

The installation of a giant battery storage system would be a small but critical step for South Australia’s goal of wind and solar power dominating its grid. While the state beat by eight years its target of deriving 50 percent of its power from clean-energy sources, supply remains highly volatile depending on weather conditions.

Musk’s battery system is designed to overcome one of the main obstacles to greater reliance on renewable power sources -- they can store up power produced while the wind blows or sun shines, and then release it steadily to the grid later when generation stalls.

The entrepreneur has high hopes for the wide-scale roll-out of solar and battery-based energy storage after acquiring installed SolarCity Corp. last year. Tesla sees the combination of those two clean energy technologies as key to its overall effort to accelerate the transition to renewables and wean the world off fossil fuels.

“Earth is itself a satellite of the sun,” Musk said. “It’s pretty obvious that if small satellites can be solar and battery powered, the big ones can too. The faster we get there the better."

Tesla Powerpacks in South Australia.

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a fierce critic of the state’s energy policy, initially jumped on board and said energy storage would be a priority for the government this year. That enthusiasm has waned in the following months as warnings about power supply shortages looming in major such as Sydney and Melbourne. Turnbull has turned his attention toward extending the life of coal-fired power plants.

The Tesla boss can point to success where it delivered a large battery project in Southern California in 90 days to alleviate the risk of winter blackouts. But the Palo Alto, California-based maker of electric cars and energy-storage products has missed almost every aggressive product milestone it set for itself in the past decade and its mass-market electric sedan has been hit by production delays.

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