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5 Things You May Have Missed About Elon Musk's Tesla Battery Announcement

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5 Things You May Have Missed About Elon Musk's Tesla Battery Announcement

“The sun shows up every day and produces ridiculous amounts of power.” —Elon Musk, May 1, 2015

Elon Musk produced fireworks last week when he announced that Tesla, his company known for its high-end electric cars, will soon start selling batteries to power homes and businesses. The products—which run about $3,500 for Powerwall home systems and about $25,000 for Power Pack business systems—will likely start shipping to customers later this year. The home system will store 10 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power a household for several hours.

Here are five important things you may not have seen about the Tesla announcement:

1. Consumers will save money on electricity.

According to Kimball Musk, Tesla board member and brother of Elon, the system could save consumers up to 25 percent on their electric bills. He explained that instead of paying premium electricity rates in the afternoon in a place like California, the battery will charge itself in the middle of the night when electricity is cheapest. "Electricity is only getting more expensive. So any way we can store it and become more self-reliant, that's ultimately a good thing," said Julien Gervreau, whose winery business has been piloting battery use for energy storage.

Thus, depending on electricity rates, the pay-back period could be only three to four years. In a place like Hawaii, where electricity rates are much higher than the national average, the pay-back will be even faster. Several states with net-metering laws will even allow solar consumers to sell the excess power stored in their Powerwall back to the utility.

2. It will hasten a widespread switch to renewable energy

If utilities use these battery systems, as some have already announced they will do, it will allow them to better shift the load of electricity use throughout the day when the sun isn’t always shining and wind isn’t blowing -- thus giving utilities the ability to integrate more renewables into the grid. “Storage is a game changer,” Tom Kimbis of the Solar Industries Association told The Washington Post.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Tesla will get a boost from the California Public Utilities commission, which has ordered Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas and Electric to install or contract for more than 1,325 megawatts of electricity storage throughout the state by 2020, creating a huge market for batteries.

3. It will allow electric car and solar customers to drive on more sunshine. 

Electric vehicles (EVs) are already lower in emissions than conventional vehicles, even taking into account the emissions from the electricity used to charge them and even in parts of the country with dirty grids. But to go the extra green mile, of the more than 300,000 people in the U.S. who drive plug-in EVs, a significant number of them have solar panels on their homes—upwards of 32 percent according to one California survey.

One program—a collaboration among Ford, SunPower and the Sierra Club—provides a discount on this combination of EVs and photovoltaics. However, the solar energy only powers these EVs some of the time, since the sun isn’t always shining. Tesla’s new battery system will allow consumers with any type of rooftop solar and any type of plug-in car (not just a Tesla model) to store their solar power and use it to power their cars more frequently, making it easier to truly drive on sunshine. This is why Slate Magazine posited that Tesla's new home-based battery "can truly liberate eco-minded drivers from fossil fuels."

4. It will mean battery prices will drop even faster. 

Large batteries are key to electric cars and energy storage systems for homes, businesses and utilities, but cost has been a challenge. Sam Wilkinson, research manager for solar and energy storage at HIS Technology, told Wired that he anticipates a 50 percent battery cost drop in the next two to three years. Meanwhile, battery efficiency is growing at about eight percent annually.

A recent Washington Post article cited myriad reasons why "powering your home with batteries is going to get cheaper and cheaper"—among them the ongoing construction of Tesla's "gigafactory" in Nevada, expected to begin production in 2016 and reach full capacity by 2020, at which point it will produce more lithium batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013.

5. Companies are already raising their hands to buy and sell these battery systems.

Big companies such as Walmart and Cargill have already started to partner with Tesla to power their operations with the new PowerPack battery in conjunction with rooftop solar. Tesla batteries already power 11 Walmart stores, and the Jackson Family Wineries in Northern California started installing Tesla's battery storage systems last fall at all eight of its wineries. And just last week, Austin, Texas-based Treehouse home improvement store announced that it will be the first retailer to carry the new Tesla home battery.

Musk said he wants to make batteries a core part of Tesla's business, with the ultimate goal of transforming the world's electric system. He emphasized that as with its electric car systems, Tesla will have an "open patent" policy—meaning that other companies wishing to join the battery revolution don't have to start from scratch. He said at the Powerwall unveiling, "We are hopeful that many others will follow our path and if somebody is able to make a better battery solution than us, I'd be the first to congratulate them."

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the director of the Electric Vehicles Initiative for the Sierra Club.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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