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Hacking a Tesla battery may foreshadow an energy revolution

Jason Hughes inspects one of his Tesla lithium-ion

Jason Hughes inspects one of his Tesla lithium-ion batteries on Feb. 10, 2014, in his new home in Hickory, N.C., where he is installing solar panels and hooking them up to the batteries to store the energy. Photo Credit: Bloomberg News / Chris Keane

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 as 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. "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 skunk works.

Though Long Island fell short in a bid for the DOE research center, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University continue to work to develop a powerful new generation of batteries.

Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading-edge technology companies like Elon Musk's Tesla Motors Inc. and scads of startups are getting into the act.

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, according to the Wind Energy Foundation.

"What's holding back solar and wind isn't their availability but the fact that the technology to generate renewable energy has leaped far ahead of the capacity to store and deploy it round the clock as needed," says Crabtree.

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.

But Jason Hughes' Tesla hack is one small step. "I'm not going to drill for oil and refine gasoline in my basement," he says, "but I can hook up solar panels and run my car."

Hughes 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.

With staff reports

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