An Inside Look: Tesla's Gigafactory

by Andrew Meyer
March 15, 2016

Let’s get a preview of Elon Musk’s mind-blowing new project: The Gigafactory.

In the past year, Tesla Motors has taken the energy storage world by storm, beginning with the unveiling of the Powerwall, a new residential solar energy storage battery. The production of the Powerwall has been big, but nothing has been bigger than Tesla’s newest construction project: the Gigafactory… and we mean that literally. The Gigafactory, a new Tesla Motors production site outside of Sparks, Nevada, is quickly becoming one of the engineering wonders of the world. The scale, innovation, and efficiency of the Gigafactory are astounding, and the building isn’t even finished yet. Let’s get a preview of Elon Musk’s mind-blowing new project: The Gigafactory.

The Gigafactory in a (very large) Nutshell

The first striking feature of the new Gigafactory is its sheer size. The factory is being built on a 3,000 acre lot… that’s roughly three times the size of Central Park. At this point in its construction, the square footage of the factory itself covers 126 acres. That’s almost 100 football fields of factory. Standing 71 feet tall, the new Gigafactory is projected to be the world’s second-largest building (by volume), just behind Washington’s Boeing’s Everett plant.

Though the size of the plant is impressive in itself, the state-of-the-art features of the new Tesla Gigafactory is what sets it apart from other production plants. It all begins with a $16 million foundation. Elon Musk designated a small fortune dedicated to making the foundation of the Gigaplant as earthquake-proof as possible. How did they do it? The builders created four different structures on four different foundations, lessening the rigidity of the building itself in the case of an earthquake.

The next stand-out feature of the Gigafactory won’t surprise you: the entire finished factory will be completely powered by renewable energy. You read that right--even a factory the size of a small city can create all of the energy it needs to operate. The roof of Tesla’s Gigafactory will be lined in solar panels, with extra solar panel installations on neighboring hilltops, all capturing the free, reliable energy of the hot Nevada sun. In addition to solar power, the Gigafactory will get energy from geothermal and wind power as well. When it’s finished, Tesla’s new factory will stand as a model for all future energy efficient construction projects.

When interviewed about the Gigafactory’s design, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that aesthetics were important:

“We are taking care to make sure that it looks good, that it fits in with the surroundings. It’s a factory, but we care about aesthetics,” Musk said. In order to make the factory fit in with its Nevada desert environment (and so they had less earth to move), Tesla built the factory shaped like a diamond. The factory is also aligned to true north, which Musk says is “kind of romantic,” but has practical implications as well. A true north alignment makes it easier to place solar panels at an optimal angle, and also allows the company to map out equipment placement by GPS.

The aesthetically pleasing, diamond-shaped factory will be home to about 6,500 employees upon completion in 2020, all who will bear witness to an additional, awesome feature of the Gigafactory: It’s unprecedented ability to recycle.

Recycling Trains into Batteries

Elon Musk has said repeatedly that the Gigafactory would make Tesla’s batteries more affordable to the masses. One of the ways it does this is by cutting material costs with some amazing recycling techniques. According to Musk, Tesla is about to do things that no other battery manufacturer has ever done. For one: old trains will come into the factory… and come out as batteries.

“We will bring in trains that come out as batteries,” Musk said during the Baron’s investors conference. Though we didn’t get the play-by-play of how Tesla was going to pull this off, we can’t wait to find out.

And trains won’t be the only thing recycled in the new Gigafactory. According to recent reports, pretty much everything will be recycled… including old battery packs. Recycling has been a big conversation amidst the growth of new energy efficient technologies, and Tesla isn’t going to ignore the dialogue.

It’s all about the Batteries

The primary purpose of Tesla’s Gigafactory will be to produce batteries -- both the batteries used by Tesla’s automobiles, and also the new residential and commercial solar batteries Tesla has recently put on the market. Many products, like computers and other electronic devices, use lithium-ion batteries, but Tesla currently stands as the biggest consumer of li-ion batteries on the planet. Soon, Tesla Motors will be the biggest producer of lithium ion batteries as well.

The Gigafactory is set to be the largest lithium-ion battery factory in the world, producing more battery cells in-house by 2020 than all the other lithium-ion battery makers combined in 2013.

Lithium-ion batteries are not new to the scene, but they’ve become pivotal to the success of companies like Tesla because of some unique properties. Lithium, the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential. This means that lithium provides the highest energy density per weight, far lighter and more efficient than the popular lead acid battery. Because of the extra weight of lead acid batteries, they are far more difficult to transport. Their weight also makes usability much less convenient for residential customers.

The growth of lithium-ion technology has brought along with it many advantages. In comparison to batteries that have been popularly used in the past, lithium-ion batteries are cleaner, live longer, recycle better, and require much less maintenance. (To read more about lithium ion battery technology, click here.)

Tesla uses lithium-ion batteries prominently in their ground-breaking vehicles, but the newly-introduced solar energy storage battery, the Powerwall, uses the same technology. The popularity of home batteries has gone through the roof recently, and with good reason.

Why Everyone’s Buying Home Batteries

Home batteries are the simplest and best way to solve the solar energy glitch -- the fact that solar is an intermittent energy source, since the sun is not always shining. Experts from the fields of science, engineering, technology, and sustainability are all coming to the same conclusion: energy storage in the form of home batteries are the best way to launch residential use of renewable energy into the future.

Households with rooftop solar are taking their energy systems to the next level with home batteries. They’ll have to if they want to protect the value of the energy generated from their solar panels, according to Elon Musk.

Tesla’s home battery model, the Powerwall, charges using electricity generated from solar panels. According to Musk, every home with solar panels needs a home battery.

“Without a home battery, excess solar energy is often sold to the power company and purchased back in the evening [at a higher price],” Musk argues “The mismatch adds demand on power plants and increases carbon emissions.”

If this sounds like a lose-lose situation, that’s because it is. Houses with solar who don’t also have energy storage like home batteries have no way to use the excess electricity generated during the day when the sun is shining and solar energy is in abundance. When households have solar energy they can’t use, it goes back into the power grid. Often, power companies pay households for giving back the extra power generated by solar, but not as much as they charge for the same amount of electricity later in the day, when people actually need it. Without a home battery, solar customers end up paying extra for the electricity they generated themselves, just like paying the power company to store the energy for them so they can use it later. Instead of giving more money to the power companies, why not just store it yourself? With a home battery, solar households have this opportunity.

Instead of selling electricity back to the grid, home battery owners get to keep their energy, and use it whenever they need it. This eases the workload of power plants, decreasing carbon emissions, and saves money for households with solar at the same time. Taking this into consideration, it’s hard to argue against Elon Musk when he says that all solar panel owners need a home battery. Without a home battery to store excess electricity, solar owners continue to throw money, and energy, at the power companies. Home batteries keep electricity and money in the hands of the consumer.

What’s Special About Tesla’s Powerwall

The Tesla Powerwall is a lithium-ion home battery that charges using electricity generated from solar panels. Lithium, the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential. This means that lithium provides the highest energy density per weight, far lighter and more efficient than the popular lead acid battery. The growth of lithium-ion technology has brought along with it many advantages. In comparison to batteries that have been popularly used in the past, lithium-ion batteries are cleaner, live longer, recycle better, and require much less maintenance.

Tesla’s Powerwall has gotten a lot of attention for sleek design, but the real headliner is its price. The 7 kWh daily cycle battery is available to installers for a mere $3K ($3.5K for the 10 kWh back-up model). The 220 lb, indoor/outdoor battery comes with a 10-year-warranty, so battery owners know that they not only have plenty of energy at night when the sun goes down, but reliable emergency back-up power as well.

What’s New About the Powerwall 2.0

At an event in Paris, Elon Musk announced that the new Powerwall (or Powerwall 2.0) will be coming out around July or August of this year, and promised a step forward in the home battery’s capabilities. Musk didn’t give many details about the new technology Powerwall 2.0 will possess, but we’ll tell you everything we know:

Though the current Powerwall has an impressive lifecycle, Elon Musk has hinted that the new Powerwall’s lifecycle will be even longer.

Here’s a little background on lithium-ion battery lifecycles: Lithium-ion has a significantly higher cycle life than lead acid in deep discharge applications. This means that lithium-ion batteries can support a higher number of complete charge/discharge cycles before their capacity falls under 80%. Recent data shows that a lead acid battery would have to be 2.5 times larger in capacity than a lithium-ion battery to get comparable cycle life.

The difference in cycle life is even greater in extreme climates. In warm climates where the temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the difference in cycle life between lithium-ion batteries and lead acid models is huge. In these extreme temperatures, it takes less than 1000 charge/discharge cycles for lead acid batteries to drop below 80% in retention, while lithium-ion batteries wouldn’t see that much of a drop until at least 2000 cycles. This huge jump in battery lifetime is an exciting development for consumers who don’t want to worry about their battery capacity dropping when they need power the most.

The exact details of Elon Musk’s Powerwall 2.0’s lifecycle have not been released yet, but we’re excited to see some new advances in lithium-ion battery technology.

The construction of Tesla’s new Gigafactory is barely underway, and we already can’t wait for its completion.

The Gigafactory will usher us into a new era of energy storage and solar battery technology.