Tesla Update: Inside the Gigafactory

by Anna Gretz
May 10, 2018
Energy

The Tesla Gigafactory feels a little bit like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory--you see the same image of it in the media, but no one really knows what he’s cooking up inside. (Parsing out the parallels between the wacky creative geniuses Willy Wonka and Elon Musk could be fun, too, but I digress.) The following is an update of the most recent details about Tesla’s new energy storage projects, but first, let’s do a quick review of the Gigafactory’s specs, and initial promises.

The Gigafactory in a (very large) Nutshell

The first striking feature of the new Gigafactory is its sheer size. The factory is built on a 3,000 acre lot… that’s roughly three times the size of Central Park. The factory itself covers acres of land--multiple hundreds of 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 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 are 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. (In a recently published article on The Swell, one urban designer said that this couldn’t yet be done. It wouldn’t be the first time Elon Musk has proved someone… or a lot of people… wrong.) The roof of Tesla’s Gigafactory is 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. Tesla’s new factory stands 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. Most of this equipment? It’s geared toward producing high-quality energy storage in the form of batteries.

It’s all about the Batteries

Tesla’s Gigafactory cranks out both the batteries used by Tesla’s automobiles, and also the residential and commercial solar batteries Tesla has 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, putting the Gigafactory to work in a big way.

But on Tesla’s recent Q1 earnings call, there were rumblings of something bit--something on the gigawatt-hour-scale.

Beyond the Model 3

Most investors and customers alike have been pretty focused on Tesla’s Model 3, but Musk has made it clear that the car is not the only project he’s working on.

The Powerwall, Tesla’s residential energy storage system, is definitely a major focus as well. Tesla said that it installed a record number of residential Powerwall systems in Q1, part of the 373 installed megawatt hours of energy storage they reported. That’s up 161 percent from the quarter before. Despite the deployment, there’s still a backlog of orders for energy storage.

“There’s more than enough demand,” said CTO JB Straubel on the recent earnings call. “We’re trying to do our best to prioritize customers between residential, Powerwall, and utility and commercial.”

Tesla’s big energy storage project in South Australia has also been putting on quite a show. The 100-megawatt Hornsdale Power Reserve has been reporting better-than-expected performance. Now, Tesla’s ready for an even bigger project. Way bigger.

“I feel confident we’ll be able to announce a deal at the gigawatt-hour scale within a matter of months,” Musk said during the call. A project at that level is completely unprecedented. We’re excited. We’re not alone.

“The industry has been flirting with the gigawatt-hour-scale projects for a while now,” said Ravi Manghani, our favorite GTM Research director of energy storage. According to Manghani, it’s just a matter of time, and “finding the right cost point and project economics.”

We like where this is headed.