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Elon Musk Gives Indian Prime Minister Tour of Tesla Factory, Talks Battery Storage and Solar

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Elon Musk Gives Indian Prime Minister Tour of Tesla Factory, Talks Battery Storage and Solar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently met Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk to discuss the implications of the Tesla Powerwall—the company’s battery energy storage technology—for India.

It was a simple official visit and as per media reports, there was no talk of Tesla setting up manufacturing facilities in India. The company, however, stated earlier that India could be “one of the potential markets in Asia to have a local assembly plant” if the government moves towards a pro-electric vehicle policy.

If and when that happens, the real opportunity for India here is to leapfrog the conventional grid and move straight to distributed generation (and consumption) of power, something similar to what happened in the telecom sector where most of the country got connected via mobile telephony, without having to go through the landline model.

But the important thing which the visit did achieve was to start discussions on Powerwall usage in India. As a proof, you can look at the comments from those discussing the (un)economics of the battery and spammers trying to drive some traffic to their sites. Even at its launch, the Powerwall was discussed in the niche forums in India quite extensively.

At both times, the battery got dismissed outright as “a too costly to consider” solution.

I have one small issue (and one big rant) with these (as I call them) pseudo-economic-experts. The problem with their discourse is that, to use an idiom, they miss the forest for the trees. They have no idea of the future and certainly no understanding of how technology pricing works.

At least for us in the cleantech space, this has become a regular (boring) cycle now.

Think of any new development—and all these people want to talk about is its cost right now. If the current costs are high (which, unsurprisingly, they are), the product/technology gets labeled as just another toy for rich green people.

Don’t get me wrong—the cost is a very important issue. But it is insane to dismiss the whole idea as forever infeasible.

World’s first hard drive with a mighty 5 MB storage. Photo credit: Wired

My personal favorite anecdotes to counter these "experts" is to talk about cost disruptions in (quite obviously) solar PV and memory storage devices. Another famous quote to pull off at times like these is what Thomas Watson (CEO of IBM) allegedly said in 1943—“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

I believe that to reject a technology by focusing only on its current cost rather than its future potential creates an artificial barrier for the technology. This is especially harmful for the cleantech industry, as it pushes the affordability tipping point by reducing the number of early adopters (what I mean).

If it were left to me, I would classify this group in the same basket as oil companies trying to hide climate change data or their friends soft selling cigarettes by asking the wrong questions.

Similar is the case with rooftop solar. Even though it generally makes complete economic sense to go solar, ordinary folks get biased due to the confusion created by passing remarks from pseudo experts. This reduces the number of people who want to make the jump, starves the market, banks hesitate from financing such projects/products and from there onwards you can figure out the vicious cycle yourself.

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Now, let’s get to the non-rant part of this post.

Why exactly are batteries (this post only talks about lithium-ion batteries) so expensive? The answer for the major part is simply due to the scale of deployment.

While solar PV has reached 200 GW of installed capacity, batteries are still taking baby steps at best. The graph below compares the rate of deployment with falling costs for the two technologies (source).

Experience curve of PV vs. that of Li-ion batteries. Photo credit: BNEF

In spite of this, a product like the Tesla Powerwall, though expensive at its current cost for the U.S. (save probably Hawaii), would be welcomed with open arms in Germany and Australia. Check this Wikipedia page to figure out other probable countries. The former two are important, though, because of their solar installations.

As this excellent (though a little dated) presentation from Roland Berger explains, the main costs are associated with the high cost of raw materials and materials processing as well as the costs of the cell, packaging and manufacturing. Raw materials and processing alone account for around 40 percent of cell costs and have huge potential for cost reduction.

Quite interestingly, the presentation published back in 2011 expected Li-ion battery prices to fall to $250/kWh by 2020. An article on MIT Entrepreneur Review, during the same period, holds a similar viewpoint:

"With the right battery chemistry, it’s feasible for costs to go as low as $300/kWh for lithium iron phosphate or lithium manganese oxide cells. That’s in the best of scenarios."

But if you have been paying attention, we are already there. These industrial-scale batteries will cost $250 per kWh of storage capacity—five years ahead of the schedule.

An article published in Nature backs up these claims (paywall). Björn Nykvist & Måns Nilsson (Stockholm Environment Institute) show that industry-wide cost estimates declined by approximately 14 percent annually between 2007 and 2014, from above $1,000 per kWh to around $410 per kWh. The cost of battery packs used by market-leading battery electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers is even lower, at $300 per kWh.

Winfried Hoffman at the consulting firm ASE agrees. In an interview with PV Magazine last yearhe put it quite bluntly that battery storage costs will fall considerably faster that most experts are currently projecting. The interview post goes on to say:

"If the battery has 80 percent usable capacity and holds 5,000 cycles, the cost of stored electricity in this evaluation will fall from €0.20/kWh ($0.25) in 2012 to €0.05/kWh ($0.06) in 2030. Should the solar power generation costs fall to €0.05-€0.10/kWh, electricity costs that are more than competitive with the cost of household electricity will result."

The cost of solar PV is expected to fall about 40 percent over the next two years. With battery costs plummeting similarly, the next round of solar rush is set to witness a wave of a lifetime. And countries like India are waiting impatiently.

How can you help? Don’t be myopic. Don’t push the future further away.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

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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