Mention the name Tesla and an immediate reaction is likely to be about their electric-powered cars. But the automaker is building their “Gigafactory” in a vast expanse of the Nevada desert outside of Reno to provide a lot more than batteries for their sleek vehicles. Tesla is taking dead aim at becoming the leader in an enormous change involving Solar power and the nation’s electricity grid.

Key will be making battery storage affordable

The key, for all of the players in the energy space, is whether Battery technology can meet the growing demand for power storage at a reasonable cost. Tesla has begun selling their Powerpacks (listed at $47,000) to utility suppliers and Powerwalls (listed at $3,000) to home energy generators such as SolarCity.

Tesla’s announcement in June that they will acquire SolarCity for $2.8 billion highlights their intentions in a rapidly changing energy market. As more consumers install solar panels in their homes, highly-regulated utilities are being forced to reduce the payback for solar owners to avoid losing money.

This new development is leading the solar industry to take a closer look at battery storage technology which will allow homeowners to keep the power they generate rather than returning it to the utilities. It is this new trend, known within the solar industry as operating “behind the meter,” that Tesla is seeking to exploit.

But the problems of battery storage for solar power are complex. Carefully calibrated software is needed to balance the communication necessary between the solar panel, the utility meter, and the power inverter that manages both.

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Without proper management, a battery can quickly wear out which is something a homeowner who just shelled out $3,000 doesn’t want to see.

New recycling technology holds promise

About a mile away from Tesla’s new factory in Nevada is an acid-battery recycling plant. Aqua Metals celebrated the completion of their new facility in late July with a press event attended by this columnist.

The company uses an electrochemical process to recycle the lead in conventional batteries, a technology that Aqua Metals claims is virtually pollution-free compared with a decades-old approach that involves high-temperature smelting.

But perhaps the most significant part of the advanced recycling process is that they are generating lead nanofibers which can be used to make lithium-ion, the key component of batteries made by Tesla and others such as Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. These nanomaterials enable a much higher use of the lead at a fraction of the current cost, which could result in bringing down the cost of lithium-ion battery production considerably.

For now, the end product will be pigs, 22-inch lead ingots which Aqua Metals is content to sell for now until their nanofiber byproduct gains more attention and interest. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. California has a requirement that by 2020, all new homes must be net-zero-energy capable. It is widely expected that solar power will have to play a major role in meeting this mandate. And other states are following California’s example. Net-zero-energy initiatives are springing up in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Texas, to name just a few.

Tesla’s factory in the Nevada desert is expected to be in full production by the end of this year, about the same time as the Aqua Metals battery recycling plant. In the quiet of a broad expanse of land outside Reno, amid the sagebrush and jack rabbits, a battery revolution may be just beginning.