Battery Hackers Are Building the Future in the Garage

Revolutions that start in the garage are nothing new. The one-car shed in which David Packard and William Hewlett launched the partnership that would grow into Hewlett-Packard Co. is known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.

So Jason Hughes may be on to something.

In a cluttered four-car garage in suburban Deptford, New Jersey, Hughes spent the better part of last year hacking a 1,400-pound battery recovered from a wrecked Tesla Model S and reworking it into a stacked array that can store energy from his solar-power system. His battery tinkering resolves the issue of intermittency since his green power will be available whenever he needs it, night or day, rain or shine.

A day trader by profession, the 31-year-old doesn’t want to save the world. He just wants to get off the grid. He did his homework and concluded that off-the-shelf batteries just don’t yet have the heft he required to achieve that.

The mattress-sized Tesla battery did – it’s elephantine as lithium-ion batteries go – even if it cost him $20,000 and hundreds of hours of tinkering to make it work. “This is going to be my electric company,” he says.

In his battery obsession and ambition, Hughes turns out to be emblematic of something much grander. He is part of an unprecedented worldwide effort – equivalent to a kind of a tech-age version of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb – to amp up, transform and reinvent the humble battery into an element that could profoundly change the global energy paradigm.

Consider the crash effort at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research in suburban Chicago. Within five years, researchers want to create one or more battery types that can “store at least five times more energy than today’s batteries at one-fifth the cost,” according to George Crabtree, an agreeable silver-haired scientist who runs the U.S. Department of Energy-backed battery-research skunkworks.

Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading-edge technology companies like Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. and scads of start-ups are getting into the act. Some are seeking to double the capacity and dramatically cut the costs of the lithium-ion battery, the standard in IPhones and electric vehicles. Others are working on mega-scale battery systems using novel chemistries that could cheaply store enough energy to help power entire cities.

Battery entrepreneurs have begun to even talk like revolutionaries. “The ability for a battery company to change the dynamics of the world is what has got us excited,” says Bill Watkins, chief executive officer of Imergy Power Systems Inc., a Fremont, California, startup working on utility-scale batteries. “We can actually make a big difference here. I call it democratizing energy.”

As the former CEO of Seagate Technology PLC, the Silicon Valley digital storage maker, Watkins can speak from experience about tectonic technology shifts. In 1980, a Seagate five-megabyte hard drive that rendered floppy disks obsolete was a $1,500 PC add-on. These days, drives holding two terabytes of data – equivalent to two million megabytes – can be had for a retail price of under $200.

What’s primarily driving the battery revolution is the phenomenal growth of rooftop and other forms of solar energy and an awakening by renewable energy advocates that storage is the lagging piece of the transformative puzzle. Solar now powers the equivalent of 3.5 million American homes and accounted for 34 percent of all newly installed electricity capacity last year. Wind supplies enough electricity for the equivalent of about 14.7 million U.S. homes, about the same as 52 coal-powered generating plants, according to the Wind Energy Foundation.

An exponential breakthrough in battery capacity and cost would bulldoze aside the limitations to adopting renewable energy on a massive scale, be a potent weapon to fight climate change by lowering carbon emissions and potentially bring billions of dollars in profits, never mind fame, to the winners. The knock on renewables is that while fossil fuels keep the power on all the time, solar fades when the sun doesn’t shine and wind power fizzles when the wind doesn’t blow – unless you have a way to store the excess for when you need it.

“What’s holding back solar and wind isn’t their availability but the fact that the technology to generate renewable energy has leapt far ahead of the capacity to store and deploy it round the clock as needed,” says Crabtree of the Joint Center project, which is run out of the federal Argonne National Laboratory.

Prophesies of energy revolutions always come with caveats, of course, and some researchers note that an exponential breakthrough in battery storage and cost has been forecast for more than a decade and still hasn’t arrived. “Of all these other battery technologies people promote, how many of them are real?” says Jeff Dahn, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who continues to plug away at making stronger and cheaper lithium-ion batteries. “All that remains to be seen.”

And while hackers like Hughes capture the excitement around battery potential, their very existence demonstrates that cheap home batteries haven’t yet arrived at Home Depot.

That said, Tesla’s Musk in February announced the company will soon unveil a consumer battery that can be used for homes and businesses. Tesla sees the endeavor as a “multi-billion dollar per year one,” according to a job description for the company’s stationary storage unit posted on Tesla’s website.

Recall, too, that naysayers kept telling Texan George Mitchell, the father of the hydraulic fracturing revolution, that it was impossible to economically squeeze oil and gas out of tight shale formations. Fracking has upended the energy world. Remember also that people seeing the first brief-case-sized cell phones scoffed that such a thing would ever be widely adopted. Now, pretty much every second grader in America has one.

Simply doing the math on the ambitions of the Joint Center project – making batteries with five times the capacity at a fifth of the present cost – lays out the stakes and prospects. Electric vehicles would travel more than 400 miles on a charge instead of an average of 84 as a Nissan Leaf does now – better than many gasoline-powered vehicles.

Cheaper batteries also mean you could drive an EV off the lot for the same price as a bargain-basement gasoline model, making them truly mainstream. And with the option of charging them with solar power, owners will be able to motor past the local Exxon station without ever stopping – or even having to pay their utilities a dime. Who needs the grid, or the oil companies, then?

At the Geneva International Motor Show this month, no less than Aston Martin – the famed luxury British carmaker loved by James Bond – said it asked its engineers to produce what they considered “the future of luxury GT motoring.” What they introduced was an electric-powered DBX Concept car to be powered by lithium-sulfur cells, no gasoline necessary.

Similarly, as Hughes’s Tesla hack is already demonstrating, homes and businesses will be battery frontiers of their own. The rollout of inexpensive, powerful, compact battery arrays could fundamentally change consumers’ relationship with electric utilities. Homeowners and companies linking solar to batteries could self-generate round the clock and, if they choose to, do what Hughes wants to do – fire their power companies.

SolarCity Corp., the Musk-backed rooftop solar installer, has already started offering home rooftop solar systems paired with backup Tesla-made lithium-ion batteries. Solar-battery combinations are poised to become a big business, expected to grow into $1 billion a year in sales by 2018, according to GTM Research.

Forward-looking utilities could even get into the act, building vast battery arrays that would remove barriers to their harvesting of solar and wind energy, since that energy could be stored and deployed at any time. Economics aside, think of the political windfall of utilities going willingly green.

All this may be coming to a head sooner than most people realize. “Electricity markets will be turned upside down within the next 10-20 years, driven by solar and batteries,” says an August 2014 report from investment bank UBS. So might the auto industry and the oil companies.

In the case of Jason Hughes’s Tesla hack, it feels like one of those shape-shifting moments. The fossil-fuel grid has been a marvel but its time has come and technologically savvy people – rapidly becoming the majority of us – are seeking to connect to the new thing. “I’m not going to drill for oil and refine gasoline in my basement,” says Hughes, “but I can hook up solar panels and run my car.”

Hughes has a kindred spirit in Trond Arvid Rosvik, who lives almost 3,800 miles across the Atlantic from New Jersey in Oslo, Norway. They’ve never met, but Rosvik found Hughes through an Internet forum where Tesla owners swap experiences on everything from finding charging stations to do-it-yourself repairs.

That forum is where Hughes documented his tinkering in exhaustive detail, after Rosvik had finished a project of his own. Tesla employees declined to give Hughes advice on his project though they thought it was “pretty cool,” he says.

Electric car sales in Norway are brisk – representing 18 percent of all models sold in January – because the oil-rich country also has some of Europe’s highest fuel prices, the result of steep taxes. Among the biggest perks for electric vehicle owners is the right to zip along in empty bus lanes while fossil-fuel-powered cars sit in gridlock. Electric cars also avoid sales and registration taxes.

Teslas are also popular in Norway but Rosvik ended up with a power plant taken from a Nissan Leaf. It took him a weekend to hack the Leaf battery pack and connect it to a group of panels – allowing him to use solar power 24 hours a day in summer months.

He estimates the whole system, incorporating batteries scavenged from crashed and discarded Leafs, cost him less than 60,000 kronor ($7,732).

Rosvik, like Hughes, isn’t an engineer, even though he has technical training – he’s certified to repair televisions and electronics. He’s nonchalant about the challenges. “I wouldn’t say it’s sophisticated, really,” he says. “I have never worked with lithium batteries but with a little Google it wasn’t that difficult.” Tesla said it will have more information about its storage products in the next few months. Nissan didn’t want to discuss hackers tinkering with its Leaf batteries, but a spokesman said the company has looked into the potential of a second life for those batteries and, in fact, has a solar array tied to Leaf battery packs outside of its Nissan USA office in Franklin, Tennessee.

While it may not be hard, a lot of the hackers’ tinkering falls squarely into the “do not try this at home” category. As the 2013 battery overheating issues aboard Boeing 787 jetliners demonstrated, powerful lithium batteries can be unstable even in the hands of professionals. In worst-case scenarios, high temperatures can lead to a “thermal runaway,” a self-sustaining reaction that can cause violent explosions.

Back in the U.S., Hughes is undaunted. He and his fiancé, Ashley, recently moved to a 4,550-square-foot house in Hickory, North Carolina. He is in the process of installing 36 solar panels on the roof and another 66 in the backyard. With a second Tesla battery, he thinks he can move the house entirely off the grid, with enough juice on tap for a week of backup power even with very little sunlight.

In all, it’s a large-scale, grown-up version of home experiments Hughes conducted with his dad when in the fifth grade, connecting rudimentary solar panels to charge car batteries that would then power their coffee maker, microwave and Sega Genesis video game console.

While neighbors may find the setup odd, Hughes is convinced his thinking will spread as high-performance batteries get cheaper. “I don’t see how it can’t,” he says. “What I’m working on now for myself, 20 years from now is going to be pretty commonplace.”

Or as Crabtree from the Joint Center battery project describes the transformation under way, “Homeowners will begin to say, ‘hey, nothing is stopping me from putting a solar panel on the roof and a battery in the basement.’ And it will kind of get perfected and refined by doing, and it’ll be the citizen innovator that will make it happen.”

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