The battery 'Gigafactory' that Tesla is building in Nevada is the centerpiece of its whole mass-market electric car strategy. Without it, the company will have trouble securing enough battery supply to make hundreds of thousands of EVs (which they plan to do for the upcoming, more affordable Model 3, to be unveiled in March 2016), and it will have trouble reducing its prices enough to attract Mr. and Mrs. Everybody (the Gigafactory is expected to slash costs by at least 30% through economies of scale and high-tech manufacturing).
A lot has been written about how big the Gigafactory will be: It's going to be one of the largest building on Earth (how it ranks will depend how much the original plan is expanded), and it will produce more batteries when it is fully operational than the whole world was producing in 2013, as you can see in the graph below.
But relatively little has been written about another very cool aspect of the project: It will be a 'net zero' energy consumer and have carbon neutral operations.
Tesla's Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, gave some details on how that will work at a recent talk at the University of Nevada:
Renaud Janson helped transcribe some of the relevant parts (big thanks to him!):
The Gigafactory is maybe the best example we can talk about with this. You know, from the get-go, from the first concept of this factory, we wanted to make it a net-zero facility. So, you know, the most visible thing we are doing is covering the entire site with solar power. The whole roof of the Gigafactory was designed from the beginning with solar in mind. We kept all of the mechanical equipment off the roof. We didn’t put extra, sorta, penetrations through the roof that we didn’t need to and it’s a very, very clean surface that we can completely cover in solar. But that’s not enough solar, though. So we have also gone to the surrounding hillsides that we can’t use for other functions and we’re adding solar to those.
Most factories could do this, if not tot he extent of the Gigafactory, at least to some extent. And new factories that are being planned today should definitely be conceived with renewable energy in mind. It's a waste to have these vast rooftops be unused.
This is the right approach:
The other interesting thing is we wanted to manage the emissions from the Gigafactory. Solar power can do some of that, but we took kind of a radical move in the beginning and said we are not going to burn any fossil fuels in the factory. You know, zero emissions. We are going to build a zero-emissions factory — just like the car. So, instead of kind of fighting this battle in hindsight, we just said we are not even going to have a natural gas pipeline coming to the factory, so we didn’t even build it. And it kind of forced the issue. When you don’t have natural gas, you know, none of the engineers can say, “Oh, but it will be more efficient, let me use just a little bit.” Sorry, we don’t even have it.
Don't do what everybody else does and then try to fix it. Design from the start with a cleaner approach in mind, so you won't even be tempted to take the traditional (polluting) approach.
So it’s kind of been a fun activity and just, a lot of challenges that come up. But in every single step of the process, we have been able to reinvent and come up with solutions. There’s a heat pump technology that actually ends up way more efficient than just burning natural gas for steam. And then, we have a facility that has basically no emissions. The only emissions are related to the vehicles that might go there that aren’t electric or things like that. But we’ll try to attack that one piece at a time.
Why don't more factories use this heat pump technology that turns out to be more efficient than natural gas? Probably because they all have a natural gas pipe coming in by default, so they don't even investigate alternatives. Sometimes constraints (ie. carbon neutral, net zero energy) are the best catalyst for fresh thinking!
You can see a video shot by a drone flying over the Gigafactory here: