The electric car company Tesla is much in the news for its decision to build a massive factory in Nevada to manufacture batteries. The $5 billion project promises to produce as many lithium ion batteries as the entire world currently makes.
That prompted one Bloomberg writer to speculate that Tesla’s “plan to boost battery production by building what Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk calls a ‘gigafactory’ may do more to transform the power industry than it does to advance the electric car.” Other commentators, including a Morgan Stanley analyst quoted in that piece, have made similar claims.
This hyperbole provides a great opportunity to illustrate the enormity of the global energy system.
Technology and energy expert Mark Mills has it right in his recent Forbes column.
Mills acknowledges that Tesla’s factory will be enormous. The problem most observers don’t get, though, is that “the scale of the energy world is sobering.” He provides context which is missing from so much other commentary.
Here are a couple of startling statistics from Mills worth a closer look:
All of the batteries produced annually at the [Tesla] gigafactory could store 5 minutes (not a typo — it is five minutes) worth of annual U.S. electric demand. The sun is unavailable, on average, 720 minutes a day.
Just 30 minutes of the energy output at one shale field in Texas, the Eagle Ford, is greater than the entire quantity of energy that could be stored by all batteries produced each year at the gigafactory.
Those numbers go to the heart of the importance of energy and scientific literacy for discussing and building sound policies for the future.
Furthermore, they help explain why it’s essential always to keep in mind the vast scope of the energy industry.
The energy sector is a lot bigger than many knowledgeable people recognize – both in terms of the supplies required to keep society humming and the challenges inherent in trying to rapidly transition from the energy systems that society has adopted over so many decades.
Understanding the scale of global energy needs and the size of the industry that meets those needs is a prerequisite for sensible discussion.
It would be helpful if more journalists would put new developments into context before predicting the wholesale overthrow of something as large and complicated as our nation’s electricity system.