The Gigafactory is Tesla Motor’s massive lithium ion battery manufacturing plant. The name derives from the term Gigawatt-hours (GWh’s), a measure of electricity storage or usage, which represents one billion kilowatt-hours. The facility is designed to produce 35 GWh’s of energy storage every year in the form of 60 to 90 kWh batteries. Advanced assembly techniques and economies of scale will lower the cost of the batteries and increase their availability. Tesla hopes to generate 500,000 electric vehicles (EV’s) using the Gigafactory every year by 2020. EV's have a stop and start history due to lack of demand, technology, and pressures from the fossil fuel industry, but Tesla has brought them to the forefront in an effort to make them a more permanent fixture in society. Batteries, the most important and expensive component of an electric vehicle, will no longer limit the fabrication of sustainable vehicles.
Tesla Motors is the first automotive company to establish itself in the United States since Jeep in 1941. Much of Tesla’s success originates from its niche market of EV technology and their mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable forms of transportation. The fuel tank and engine of a standard gasoline powered car is instead swapped out for Tesla’s advanced lithium ion batteries, which are capable of holding a large amount of electricity. The models start with a 60 kWh battery but can be upgraded to a 90 kWh unit. On these charges, Tesla’s cars can travel at least 200 miles before needing more electricity. To put this in perspective, 60 kWh’s could power a standard LED bulb for 2 years running 8 hours every day.
Tesla has made a big name for itself; but, without a mass produced mid-end car to sell, they may not be able to stay in the business. The Gigafactory is essential to Tesla’s survival as the efficiency and scale of the facility makes such a car feasible. Currently, Tesla only sells high-end sports cars that start at $66,000 and climb as high as $130,000 for performance models. Batteries are the most important component in an electric car and account for much of the cost. Tesla is already the largest consumer of lithium ion in the world surpassing smartphone giants like Apple and Samsung. To achieve their aggressive goal of 500,000 vehicles per year, Tesla will need more batteries than the world currently makes. Because of this limitation battery prices remain high, production is limited and electric cars are unattainable for most consumers.
The prefix “giga” in the Gigafactory’s name not only refers to the production capacity of the facility, but also to its sheer size. The property is three times the size of Central Park in NYC. The factory itself will inhabit an area of 13 million square feet, making it the biggest building in the world in terms of its footprint (ground covered area). For some perspective, 225 regulation football fields could fit inside! This is not the only world record the Gigafactory will compete for. It will also be the second biggest building in terms of volume behind the Boeing Aircraft factory. Tesla is leveraging economies of scale and innovative manufacturing techniques to increase the efficiency of battery creation. Every step in the production process will occur within the Gigafactory – as raw materials enter, assembled batteries will exit. The Gigafactory is going to create more lithium ion batteries than the entire world manufactured in 2013, and Tesla estimates that their production methods will reduce the cost of a lithium ion battery by 30%.
Only 14% of the Gigafactory has been completed. The grey lines represent what still needs to be constructed.
Tesla is making a commitment to sustainability. Electric cars are cleaner and more efficient than the conventional gasoline powered car, but a green product is only as green as the methods used to create it. Tesla is making sure that their vehicles are sustainable from their creation to their retirement. The Gigafactory will be a net zero building and will operate fully on renewable energy sources. The building will also be equipped with an advanced recycling system that allows old batteries to be fully recycled and reused. The Gigafactory ensures that Tesla’s vehicles will be produced sustainably, will function sustainably, and will be disposed of sustainably. This “cradle to grave” manufacturing model shines as an extraordinary example of environmentally conscious production that businesses rarely employ.
CEO Elon Musk recently announced that construction of the facility is well ahead of schedule. Initially set for 2020, the factory could be completed as early as 2018 with car battery production beginning in 2017. The Gigafactory is being constructed in a modular fashion so it can begin operations while other modules are still being built. In fact, battery production for Tesla’s home and commercial energy storage units, called the Powerwall and Powerpack, have already begun.
The Gigafactory represents the advancements made in the sustainable transportation field. Tesla is moving forward with its mission to improve the cost and availability of lithium ion batteries. Tesla’s proactive efforts to restructure manufacturing have created the basis for affordable electric cars to become a reality for the average consumer. Tesla’s work has made a huge impact on the automotive industry. They have begun the process of shifting public discourse away from fossil fuels, pushing towards electric and other alternative methods. Other car manufacturers are taking heed of Tesla’s success and have begun production on their own electric vehicles to compete with Tesla’s new affordable EV, the Model 3. The Chevy Bolt is one such competitor under development that will have similar specs to the Model 3. Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghosn, commended Tesla saying: “Finally, good competition for EV’s is picking up.” Ford has also made statements affirming their growing commitment to creating electric vehicles. Tesla could not have shaken the industry without its efforts to increase the efficiency of battery production. The Gigafactory is paving the way for sustainable transportation and a cleaner future.