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The First Tesla Gigafactory

Entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk is perhaps best-known for his founding of SolarCity and Tesla Motors, but there is one project that underpins them all, the Tesla Gigafactory, and it’s not even done yet. The Tesla Gigafactory idea was borne of the idea that both Tesla Motors’ energy efficient electric vehicles and SolarCity’s backup battery systems require lithium-ion batteries to function.

True, Tesla Motors has been loading Tesla Motors battery packs with thousands of Panasonic 18650 lithium-ion cells, 7,000 in a single Tesla Model S 85, but Musk’s ventures will require more lithium-ion batteries than have ever been put into production before. If Musk expects to produce a half-million electric vehicles annually, as well as produce backup batteries for smart homes and renewable energy storage, he is going to need a lot more lithium-ion batteries.

The Tesla Gigafactory was designed to fill that need, producing in-house 21×70 mm cylindrical lithium-ion cells – Samsung calls it a 21700 cell – from raw materials and refining to finished products. This first Gigafactory, located outside Sparks, Nevada, is nearly 30% complete, and currently features 4.9 million square feet of production space, already costing $1 billion to build. The 5.8 million square-foot facility, some 15 million square feet of production space, is expected to cost $5 billion by the time it is completed, in 2020, and will be one of the largest buildings in the world.

Production of Tesla’s 21×70 mm lithium-ion cell started in January 2017. By 2018, Musk expects the first Gigafactory to reach full production capacity, 35 GWh of lithium-ion cells, more than all worldwide lithium-ion cell production in 2013. By 2020, annual production output will include an additional 50 GWh in battery packs, such as the Tesla PowerWall and Tesla PowerPack. Eventually, the Gigafactory will also process lithium-ion battery recycling and battery pack rebuilding.

Elon Musk’s plans go far beyond electric vehicles, as we’ve already seen. Renewable energy is also high on his list of priorities. The problem with most renewable energy sources is intermittency – the sun doesn’t always shine, for example. Tesla PowerWall and Tesla PowerPack backup batteries make renewable energy a truly viable solution, providing energy even when the source itself is out, such as at night. The Tesla Gigafactory will eventually be outfitted with a solar roof and backup batteries of its own, and will be one of the first net-zero energy buildings in the world, that is, the factory will spend equal or less energy than it receives.

Combining the lithium-ion capacity for Tesla Motors’ expansion and renewable energy backup solutions caused Musk to reevaluate Gigafactory capacity. Musk started calling the Sparks, Nevada, facility “Gigafactory 1,” and the SolarCity plant in New York has been redubbed “Gigafactory 2.” At least three future Gigafactory locations are slated for consideration in the United States and Europe. How many will be built? Musk answered in a recent NatGeoTV video, in conversation with celebrity climate-change enthusiast Leonardo DiCaprio, if the world were to switch over to 100% renewable energy, one hundred Gigafactories would have to be built to keep up with the demand.

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