The world is expecting an announcement from Tesla CEO Elon Musk any day now regarding his company’s plans to partner with Panasonic and build an unheard-of battery manufacturing plant in the U.S. called “the gigafactory.” This $1 billion plant is said to produce enough lithium-ion batteries that Tesla could power its upcoming third-gen car on its own by release date in 2017. In a sense, this plant could give Tesla the chance to disrupt two different trillion dollar industries – automotive and electricity – with one shot.
Tesla’a project will have implications both nationally and here in the DMV region. On a surface level, it could affect how quickly we depart from a fuel-dependent automotive economy, or even when we see the first autonomous cars. But as you peer deeper, Tesla may have the ability to disrupt many companies in our region by offering an alternative to conventional power sources.
Disrupted Direct Competitors
Though the D.C. area is not ripe with battery production, there are a few organizations working toward producing a more efficient lithium-ion battery. A few years ago, DuPont invested $20 million into a lithium-ion plant in Chesterfield, Va., near Richmond. That’s not very close to D.C., but it’s the closest lithium-ion manufacturing plant around.
In Fairfax, you’ll find something called the Lithium Technology Corporation, a publicly-traded international company that produces lithium-ion based products. It does not, however, produce the batteries nearby – that’s done in Germany.
Lastly, several local universities have been studying battery types. University of Maryland students won an ARPA-E award of $590,000 for a ceramic-based lithium-ion battery. A team of students at Virginia Tech also made a new battery, which actually runs on sugar.
If and when Tesla’s Panasonic plant is built, these businesses and organizations working with lithium-ion will surely feel the waves made by Musk’s project.
The Next Tier – Utilities In the DMV
It’s obvious that a completely sustainable electric car has the ability to disrupt the automotive industry, especially with what Tesla has showcased in the past. But what about the utility industry?
Massive lithium-ion batteries are not yet affordable or completely safe, but with Musk’s ingenuity and wealth to back it, a powerful and affordable battery is not far off. If he can make something with Panasonic that can power one of his Tesla cars, how soon is it before there’s a battery that can power your home?
Even if it’s a while before we see something like lithium-ion take us away from our power-grid dependency, it can almost immediately act as a complement to other greener energies to stop hurting our wallets and the environment.
Directly, this could ween people away from the grids of companies like PEPCO here in D.C. and Dominion, the electrical utility company for Virginia. No, people won’t completely jump ship, but they could be able to augment their usage during peak times, perhaps with energy stored in a lithium-ion fuel cell produced by Tesla’s partnership.
Secondarily to this, the effects could be positively or negatively felt down the food chain. A company like Arlington’s Opower would have to account for a change in energy dependence and how it’d affect their energy management model. Others that promote clean energy alternatives would openly welcome it.
What If It’s Close to Here?
A question out of left field concerning the “gigafactory” is: What if it was built anywhere close to here?
There’s an infinitely small likelihood that it would happen. Tesla, like most of popular technology in America, revolves around Silicon Valley, so there’s a good chance they’ll continue to do work out west. Also, Panasonic is headquartered in Japan. A location on the West Coast would make the new location accessible for Panasonic leadership.
BUT, we’ve seen time and again that D.C. is the American epicenter of all things policy-related. And as the company explores the new boundaries of lithium-ion capability, it may want to be close to the regulators here in the capital.
That would of course bring massive economic development and recognition to the area. But again, that likely has a one in a million chance of happening.