Dezeen Magazine

"Elon Musk's Powerwall could change the carbon footprint of entire societies"

Opinion: Elon Musk is a real-life Tony Stark – a billionaire CEO who wants to change the world. With the launch of his energy-storing batteries for powering our homes, he may actually be developing the technology to do it, says Dan Hill.

The product launch of the early 21st century is a well-honed little drama. It's the staged simulcast. It's in California. A wide, deep stage, generally comprising black nothingness in order to foreground a giant video display and a single figure, a charismatic yet casually dressed CEO.

The CEO stands before a crowd of lanyarded acolytes, most of whom know exactly what they're here for, yet feign surprise with a volley of whoops and cheers exactly on cue, as if press embargoes are hardwired into their tonsils. A few in-jokes, a few geek jokes, before portentous music heralds a well-crafted product video, loitering with intent over the sleek facets of a beautifully engineered object.

But a recent launch was different. It wasn't for an iPhone or a Hololens or a Chromebook. It was for a battery.

It was for a 130-centimetre tall by 86-centimetre wide by 18-centimetre deep box of lithium-ion battery storage. And yet it got the whoops and cheers accordingly. It's just as well that the Duracell Bunny couldn't see the attention this thing got.

Yet it could indeed change the world, this thing. It could change the basic patterns of urban development, just as it could change the carbon footprint of entire societies.

The CEO in question was Tesla's Elon Musk – the CEO that makes Iron Man's Tony Stark look like, well, Elon Musk. The CEO that, if he didn't exist we'd have to invent him, but oh yeah we did and that's also Tony Stark. The billionaire genius CEO that delivered a well-considered, visionary and almost humble keynote outlining the unbelievable promise of, well, a battery for your home.

Musk runs the now-successful electric car business, Tesla Motors, as well as casually overseeing a list of more implausible lines of work – from a reusable spacecraft business, SpaceX, to Hyperloop, which can only be described as a theoretical subsonic air-travel thing.

Musk positioned the Powerwall as a more pragmatic innovation, as the way to positively move our energy consumption away from fossil fuels and their absurdly damaging generation and distribution models, and to shift our homes, transport and industry to renewable energy sources instead, principally solar energy.

It's the first time that anybody has coherently and confidently aimed the storage battery at a domestic market. I mean really. There have been domestic storage products for years, but Tesla's are the first to capture the imagination, to draw scalability and reliability from its electric car business, while halving the price overnight, with the entry-level unit coming in at $3,000.

And available to order now. You can put this thing on your wall, connect to solar cells on your roof, and change the way that you generate, consume and pay for energy almost instantly.

The language is careful. The Powerwall offers "independence from the energy grid". This does not imply leaving the grid altogether quite yet, and in reality that remains nowhere near possible for the average consumer, at least initially.

But it would certainly enable you to use stored power instead when electricity prices are high, provide emergency backup during brownouts, and its modular extensibility builds over time.

The combination of rooftop solar and lithium-ion battery storage could soon be cheaper than the grid, too. The grid was one of the great inventions of the 20th century, but echoes the central organisation of that time, and increasingly seems a little out of time, rightly or wrongly.

For places with high-energy prices controlled by a handful of incumbent suppliers running relatively dumb grids, counterpointed with a decent and growing spread of rooftop solar, this could be genuinely transformative. There will be numerous regulatory obstacles placed in the way by those incumbents, but it feels like history is on the side of the distributed solution.

Energy specialists, from journalists to industry figures, have been quick to query its value. Too expensive for mainstream consumers, they say, and that there are better technical solutions out there.

Yet there is effectively nothing on the market to compare a Powerwall to, given the way that Tesla can market this product. It is positioning it outside of the existing energy sector altogether. It feels more like a Google or Apple product rather than — well, could you name another battery storage brand? That's no accident. It also means all those energy specialists don't really know what they're dealing with anymore.

The dynamics of this new sector for storage have as much in common with Moore's law as Newton's laws. The former, which posits (approximately speaking) that computing power doubles every 18 months or so, has held up for 50 years now, and is the creative engine behind the extraordinary influence that technology now has on contemporary culture.

Tesla's device needs to be considered as a version 1.0 release. Pull out a v1 iPod, if you still have one, and compare with a recent iPhone. That's the rapacious dynamic we're dealing with here, finally applied to the energy sector.

While battery storage is not a pure software problem, as raw physics still defines many of the basic conditions, that dynamic suggests that Musk's intimations are not idly made, with Tesla's algorithms determining when to switch to stored energy, how to optimise its performance.

As Marc Andreessen has said, software is eating the world. Sector after sector. Here at last is a startup-driven product that eats an aspect of an unhealthy world — that of fossil fuel-powered energy generation — and potentially replaces it with a better one.

As such, it will shape cities too. Technology has long been the primary shaper of cities; from the elevator safety mechanism and the flushing toilet adding up to skyscrapers, to air conditioning and the automobile enabling a sprawl of cities and city sprawl.

Powerwall, and what follows in its wake, will shape cities in equally fundamental ways. The most interesting questions about a new kind of urban design do not concern traditional architecture and urbanism, but instead ask how these contemporary networked technologies change interactions, services and spaces in cities.

So what kind of urbanism does Powerwall suggest? Instinctively, one sketches a model of cellular, distributed infrastructure, essentially off-grid, medium-density, using various renewables, and modular forms of what would now be called "micro-transit", and so on.

In turn, this has a knock-on effect on other centralised infrastructures — the tangled knot of cables, ducts, wires and sewers I alluded to in a previous column.

With energy in mind in particular, and taken to its logical conclusion, it could imply erasing the step-down transformers, district heating plants, petrol stations that punctuate our streets, the cables draped across roads or in awkward ducts and pipes under the pavement, and further out, pylons, cooling towers, power stations, windmills and so on. Imagine the street free of all this.

It's unlikely to happen any time soon, given the insane energy loads contemporary society apparently demands, and the demands of mass transit and industry probably not catered for through local generation — but still. Imagine a city without that array of grid-based infrastructure, with the "fifth facade" of roofs made productive, and energy stored near point of consumption.

It implies a shift to lighter, more agile forms of infrastructure layers. You can design and modify these layers later and faster – they're more malleable and adaptable. (Depending on another design layer: the ownership and legal structures.)

They're perhaps closer, again, to the dynamics of Moore's law than Newton's, with all that entails. It implies an urban strategy currently being explored by those other v1.0s, Uber and Airbnb, of optimising the existing urban infrastructure rather than expensively building a new one, running entirely new applications on the same hardware.

Yet this proximity to Moore's law, and its subsequent lightness, also implies a certain flakiness. As startup culture begins to hit a city's core infrastructures, we have to also ask questions about the expected levels of robustness, redundancy, security, ease of use, universal accessibility.

While the celebration and acceptance of failure in that culture — there is even a failureCon — is important, it needs to be tempered as it directly merges with our physical world. This is something the froth of VC funding won't mask.

An interesting follow-on question is how this might affect the psychology of urban communities. The off-the-grid story is traditionally associated with the lone woodsman, the Nordic summer house dweller, the beach shack — now it could be a semi-detached on Acacia Avenue, or a block of flats in Budapest.

Will this withdrawal from the grid mean a similar withdrawal from civic society? As people lash together their own infrastructure, will they find it increasingly inconvenient to pay for the infrastructure of others, a basic tenet of living together in cities?

A JG Ballard would unravel such a world beautifully, as a kind of lithium-fuelled hybrid of his High Rise meets HBO's Silicon Valley meets Felicity Kendall's The Good Life. Equally, it might generate greater concerns for immediate environments. I suspect it depends on the ownership model underpinning the infrastructure.

There is an implicitly Californian image here: both the promise of endless summer — Musk jokes about that "handy fusion reactor in the sky" — and the individualistic suburban dwelling model. The Powerwall looks like its natural habitat is the multi-car garage that the people on TV have. It's not like that in the rest of the developed world, and nor in much of the so-called developing world.

Yet there's no reason why a Powerwall has to work solely in a Californian context, or necessarily reinforce that NTSC suburbia.

The German energiewende over the last decade or so has left the majority of the country's renewable energy infrastructure owned directly by individuals and communities rather than traditional energy companies. This is one of the biggest stories in Europe; I never understand why it's not bigger news.

The key aspect there is distributed ownership of infrastructure; local communities building, owning and using what they need, and that does play to the Tesla vision. Powerwall plus energiewende could be wunderbar.

Connected arrays of Powerwalls – the v2.0 and beyond — could work for apartments just as well as the kind of monster homes we see on Modern Family. If we saw the terrace as a long apartment block on its side, there's no reason why shared storage infrastructure wouldn't work for that, either. It might then imply new collective models of civic ownership; again, to borrow a German example, like the baugruppen.

This is the key question about Californian tech. Can we ignore their ideology and lifestyle and just steal their machines? I don't see why not.

Is this an emerging theme for our cities – networked systems as a connective tissue laced in-between existing infrastructures? It leaves core grid energy as supporting the heavy hitters of mass transit and large industry, with smaller users catered for by independent distributed energy, just as mass transit is now surrounded by legions of "micro-transit" startups, working in the gaps. The physical forms, and interaction and service models, are modelled on distributed organisation.

This is a new urban infrastructure: light, cheap, networked, optimising existing fabric rather than building anew. Yet also individualised, fragmented, market-based, potentially throwaway, with the internet underpinning it, and the extractive industries that power it, as increasingly centralised entities. Which is which?

The object — in this case the Powerwall — embodies these fundamental systems and cultures, even if it does not obviously reveal them. It's up to us to unpick that and realise the potential rather than the pitfalls.

Tesla cars are insufferably dull objects. The forthcoming mass-market Tesla Model 3 has all the élan of a Volkswagen Jetta. Playing into a highly conservative market, a Tesla car is never going to be described as the cathedral of our age, as Roland Barthes once said of the Citroën DS. The Powerwall itself is an entirely obvious object. One's tempted to ask what Ettore Sottsass would've done with the brief, but that would be missing the point.

Design itself has moved on. It's the design of the largely invisible and infinite crystalline network structures of interactions and services, or the planetary-scale manufacturing and supply chains that drive Tesla's business, that could be seen as cathedrals, or perhaps even something closer to the mystical forces that cathedrals were built in thrall to.

The scale of ambition, rather than the scale of the object, is the impressive feature of Tesla's thinking under Musk. While the fuss is over the design of an object — and if the Powerwall embodies a mainstream movement away from fossil fuels, then there will be no more alluring sight on earth —it's the system design, the more fluid layer of services that is overlaid onto our existing infrastructures, that is the truly transformational possibility, predicated on this increasingly intriguing skirmish between Moore's law and physical laws.

That form of design, rather than traditional architectural thinking, is the force driving our cities now, just as previous generations of technology did.

Dan Hill is chief design officer at Future Cities Catapult. He is an adjunct professor in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty at University of Technology, Sydney, and his blog City of Sound covers the intersection between cities, design, culture and technology.