The Battery's Down: Will Tesla Recharge the Global Energy Industry?

05/04/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

At yesterday's announcement of Tesla's energy storage products, Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered a bold vision: with the introduction of low-cost energy storage, he claimed, there is no reason why we can't complete a rapid shift from fossil fuel-based electricity production to 100 percent renewables.

His optimism will be greeted with skepticism. The perceived scale and disruption of abandoning fossil fuels has been a major argument against renewable energy, and it has led a lot of people to insist, or at least privately hope, that the climate change deniers are right. Even if climate change is happening, they say, it's too expensive to address. We're stuck with our current energy sources because, really, you want everyone to just change overnight?

Well, we have seen enormous shifts in technology happen in extremely short periods of time once truly suitable products had come to market. Candles to gas lights to electric lights. Horses to trains to cars. Root cellars to ice boxes to refrigerators. Landlines to cell phones to smartphones. But can we change an entire way of sourcing and creating energy?

Yes. In fact, we have made a series of enormous changes in energy use in relatively short periods of time (though we mainly stuck with burning wood for something like 400,000 years before we came up with a decent alternative). Home heating, for example. The house I lived in growing up had a large, strange-looking furnace made of masonry, with metal doors that had been sealed closed. The house had been built in the mid-1920s, and, my parents told me, the furnace had originally burned coal. The homeowners would keep the furnace fueled daily, shoveling coal through the metal doors of the furnace.

A little research shows how prevalent home heating with coal or wood was and how quickly it disappeared. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of U.S. homes heated by coal or wood fell from 75 percent to just 16 percent. Oh, and during that time we fought a world war which consumed most of U.S. industrial output for a while and then, postwar, built 19 million new homes. By 1970, fewer than four percent of U.S. homes burned coal or wood. We completed a total change in home energy sourcing in just a couple of decades. With the right incentives--economics, reliability and convenience, and some social norming (meaning, everybody's doing it)--we could make the switch to renewables plus storage just as quickly.

On the roof of my current house, which was also built in the 1920s, a set of solar panels is waiting to be connected to the grid. I think I'm going to buy a battery to store some of that energy. It sure beats shoveling coal.