Power Line: Tesla crushed by Sunrun in solar sales, battery breakthroughs, and a guide to the energy provider Arcadia
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Yes, I'm one of those people whose phone is always on the edge of death. So, of course, I was thrilled to learn about an impending breakthrough in battery tech - the first in three decades.
As I wrote this morning, a crop of startups is developing a silicon-based material for lithium-ion batteries, the ones that power our phones (and pretty much everything else). They say it can improve energy storage by 20-40%.
Exciting, yes, but these companies face a few big challenges along the gauntlet to commercialization.
Silicon is the best. But it's also the worst. While silicon can store a lot more charge than traditional materials (graphite, mostly), it's a particularly thorny element. It expands a lot as it absorbs charge, and it's prone to rapid degradation.
It's tough to get battery tech out of the lab. There's a reason the graveyard of battery startups is large - and it doesn't have much to do with science.
- "The problem in batteries isn't coming up with a cool new piece of science," Gene Berdichevsky, the founder of the billion-dollar battery startup Sila Nanotechnologies, told us last year.
- Instead, it's about translating science in an academic lab to mass-scale production, which requires a different set of skills.
Will startups be able to iron out these kinks? The buzzy new battery company Advano says it already has.
iPods are over. They're through!
But these gadgets were, of course, revolutionary - and you could say the same thing about the smart thermostat company Nest, another one of Fadell's very successful children (he cofounded the company).
This is to say: It's news that Fadell is throwing his weight behind a startup working on a silicon-based material for batteries called Advano.
Reader, meet Advano:
- The startup emerged from stealth mode in January, announcing that it raised $18.5 million.
- Peter Thiel's Thiel Capital and Y Combinator are also investors.
- Unlike many of its competitors, Advano is based in New Orleans, a hotspot of the chemicals industry. The founder says it gives Advano a leg up, and a better chance at scaling up.
- Advano is first targeting the consumer electronics industry, which it says is asking for batteries with a 10-20% increase in energy storage.
- Advano says its tech can overcome some of the silicon shortcomings we just talked about above. For more on that, you'll have to read my story.
You know who also loves batteries? People in a blackout who have rooftop solar.
- 296 MW: Solar deployed by Sunrun in the first nine months of 2019
- 119 MW: Solar deployed by Tesla in that same period
- 54 MW: Solar deployed by Tesla in the last three months of 2019 - far behind the 115-118 MW that Sunrun projects it will have deployed in that same period.
SolarCity (now part of Tesla) has slid since being acquired by the electric-vehicle giant in 2016.
- As it turns out, buying solar panels for your home is nothing like buying a car. It's "a very complex sale," one analyst told me today.
- "Selling a car to a consumer and putting solar on the roof of a consumer's home should have been a good synergy, but I don't think it proved out that way," Ron Pernick, the founder of the clean energy research firm Clean Edge, said.
- Tesla has also slashed its investment in new customer acquisition, Greentech Media reported last summer.
Sunrun is marketing its products as a relief system for blackouts and a stressed-out grid - and it seems to be working.
The US electrical grid has seen better days. Certainly brighter ones. Last fall, PG&E shut off power to hundreds of thousands of its customers.
- The company's battery sales ballooned last October, when the shutoffs peaked, a spokesperson said.
- Sunrun published a report that showed how its customers who lost grid power were able to keep the lights on for up to five or six days straight.
Sunrun also told us that its panels, distributed across thousands of homes, could replace carbon-emitting power plants on the grid.
The startup has raised $70 million from big backers including G2VP, a venture fund that spun out of Kleiner Perkins in 2016. But what does it actually do?
Level 1: Arcadia is a sleek website and app that manages your utility bill. Depending on where you live, it can shave up to 20% off your bill and allow you to source clean energy for your home.
Level 2: Arcadia has three major offerings, two of which are only available to customers in certain regions of the country.
- RECs: When you sign up for the platform, Arcadia automatically matches half of your monthly energy usage with what are called renewable energy certificates (or RECs) at no cost - no matter where you live.
- Smart Rate: If you live in a region where the energy market is deregulated - such as in much of the Northeast and the Great Plains - Arcadia can hook you up with cheaper sources of energy.
- Community solar: Residents in a handful of states (which may or may not overlap with those above!) can join Arcadia's community solar program, which means you'll own or lease a fraction of a nearby solar farm.
Level 3: Oh, boy. So the US energy system is … complicated. That's actually one reason why Arcadia is useful. But there are a couple of details about Arcadia's business that are worth delving into.
- RECs are far wilder than they sound. When a wind or solar farm generates 1 MWh of energy, it also generates one REC - which represents its "greenness."
- Energy and RECs are often sold separately, and the price of the REC varies by location and demand.
- Arcadia will eventually offer financing for energy efficiency devices like smart thermostats. It's likely that the company will eventually integrate its offerings with those tools.
- What could that look like? "Consumers can automatically have their thermostat programmed to optimize for cost savings and optimize for carbon emissions at the same time," said Sameer Reddy, a partner at Energy Impact Partners, which backs Arcadia.
4 big stories I didn't cover
- This week, energy giant BP set an "ambition" to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 from its operations and the oil and gas it directly extracts and sells.
- The utility giant Dominion Energy also announced a commitment this week to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which covers the company's "electricity generation and gas infrastructure operations."
- Greentech Media reported on an analysis that shows wind farms are less reliable than solar in meeting output expectations. I find that interesting because big investors say wind will beat out solar in returns.
- Denmark's Orsted, a top-5 wind developer, is betting offshore wind energy will green the $145 billion hydrogen industry, Bloomberg reports. And, well, I'm obsessed with hydrogen.
- Finally, a good surprise: Global carbon emissions "flatlined" last year.
That's all! It's a three-day weekend, which is great news because I've been blowing my nose for what feels like 100-days straight. I hope you enjoy the break.