Battery Battles Just Got Interesting

Image credit: iStockphoto/masterzphotois

A stable electrical supply is taken for granted nowadays, but that wasn't always the case. In the past, firms had a manager whose sole job was monitoring and managing electrical needs. Constant supply was far from assured in decades past, despite pioneers like Volta, Faraday, and Edison.

Part of the problem is load balancing. An electrical circuit needs to “balance” its sums at all times — meaning that output keeps pace with input and vice versa. Failure to balance electrical loads can lead to brownouts (intentional or unintentional drops in voltage — intentional brownouts are used for load reduction in an emergency).

Unintentional brownouts are a big problem for electricity suppliers, who are expected to supply a steady voltage at all times. Power companies maintain devices, including substations, to help ensure that loads are balanced across their ecosystems.

The concept: grid energy storage, described by Wikipedia as a collection of methods used for energy storage on a large scale within an electrical power grid. Electrical energy is stored during times when electricity is plentiful and inexpensive (especially from intermittent power sources such as renewable electricity from wind power, tidal power, and solar power) or when demand is low and later returned to the grid when demand is high. While this sounds like a good business strategy, balancing electrical loads is an art form.

Buffering the electrical supply/demand equation would be ideal. How to store excess capacity? A battery management system works but isn't cost-effective at scale.

What's needed is a wall of power — a different approach to a battery management system.

Enter Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the enfant terrible of tech entrepreneurs, announced last April that the capacity of Tesla's Powerwall home battery pack would be increased by up to 50%.

“Powerwall has become extremely popular,” said an article on Electrek, an American news website dedicated to electric transportation and sustainable energy. “Wait times have been increasing despite Tesla’s best effort to increase production, and the company even increased the price of the battery pack twice in just a few months.”

Longer battery life is a selling point for devices

“The long-awaited update tweaks the energy capacity a little down to 13.5 kWh,” said a report on The Hill. “What makes this update significant is the home battery's first major update since its release in 2016.”

Tech evolution

What we've seen in the evolution of technology: systems that scale beyond earlier imagined capacities. Battery systems like Tesla's Powerwall serve as buffers — a consumer-level load balancing system. Demand outstrips supply, but if manufacturing can bring economies of scale to bear, lower startup costs will mean consumers can participate in grid energy storage.

Some power companies buy excess capacity from their customers, who “farm” electricity with privately owned solar panels. Tesla is well aware of this sector: "Starting next week, Tesla Solar Panels & Solar Roof will only be sold as an integrated product with Tesla Powerwall battery,” Musk tweeted in April. “Solar power will feed exclusively to Powerwall. Powerwall will interface only between utility meter & house main breaker panel, enabling super simple install & seamless whole house backup during utility dropouts.”


As uptake of Tesla electric vehicles increases, consumer use boosts demand for battery units. As larger home units become more feasible, consumers seeking to justify costs should analyze their individual value-chains of electricity consumption and realize that they can offset costs by production. This benign cycle now drives the sector, and desirable units are in short supply.

But can battery technology keep up? Expensive wall-sized units are one thing, but what about smaller boxes?

What's needed is a wall of power

Battery tech has improved in recent years. Small motor-driven consumer devices that used to require commercial discharge-and-toss batteries now have USB cables and integral rechargeable power supplies. Manufactured at scale, they're no more costly than their previous incarnations.

And recent developments indicate a trend towards ongoing evolution.

Ridiculous battery life

In January 2022, trade show CES returned to Las Vegas with over 40,000 in-person attendees — including 1,800 global media — across 11 indoor and outdoor venues, according to the organizer. A gaming company called HyperX used the show to hype its new wireless headset, which claims a stonking 300 hours of battery life, according to Lauren Goode at Wired. “This is up from 30 hours per charge in HyperX’s previous model, the Cloud II Wireless,” she wrote.

“A 10-fold improvement in battery life over a short period is practically unheard of in consumer electronics,” wrote Goode. Phillip Tracy over at Gizmodo was similarly gobsmacked. “HyperX told me it couldn’t reveal what magical fairy dust it sprinkled over the Alpha to get such bonkers runtimes, but I assume it’s a matter of operating at a very low power state,” wrote Tracy. “What HyperX did reveal is that the headset has a 1,500 mAh rechargeable lithium-polymer battery and that the 300 hours claim is at 50% volume and was apparently already verified by a ‘third-party testing company’.”

Whatever the actual specs, it's clear that longer battery life is a selling point for devices at CES. “Chipmaker AMD said its new Ryzen chips would enable 24-hour battery life in laptops,” wrote Goode, and “Mercedes promised more than 600 miles per charge in its Vision EQXX prototype vehicle.”

Any downside? One problem is battery cycle life. A vendor may achieve notable (and marketable) duration at the expense of cycles, but if the thing dies after, say, 500 charging cycles, well, it was just a gaming headset. This argument fades when applied to a home battery array-like Tesla's Powerwall.

To succeed in the enterprise market with new-generation batteries, vendors and manufacturers must keep three principles in mind:

• Leverage economies of scale

• Evaluate home production of electricity

• Focus on long-term strategy by addressing battery life cycles

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/masterzphotois