Elon Musk’s future industries understand convergence as a first principle. Seven billion Earthlings simply can’t have Tesla’s electric cars and SpaceX’s reusable rockets without harnessing SolarCity’s sunshine. Especially if they’re trying to save themselves from global warming and Christopher Nolan blockbusters.
So futurists perk up when Tesla executives start showing up at energy conferences spreading news that SolarCity — the panel champ Musk co-founded with his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive — is accelerating its plan with Tesla to build storage batteries for solar panels, EVs and even personal electronics. Years ahead of the hotly anticipated Gigafactory ‘s schedule, even.
These are further reminders that future industrialists like Musk are hopefully a step ahead of the apocalyptic present. Because they’ve also been reading news that, starting yesterday, humanity must quickly create new residential and transportation normals, cleanly powered by the sun while coughing up zero emissions.
Like perhaps most of us, as I have written before, Musk isn’t simply thinking about how to win this existential race against time, hopefully before global warming’s superstorms arrive. He’s the man with a greener plan, already in place.
tesla plus solar“Probably more than any other single person, Elon Musk is helping to change the way Americans think about energy and the environment,” Solar Energies Industries Association spokesperson Ken Johnson told me. “He is bold, committed and visionary –- all traits that are critically important when you are trying to blaze new trails. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t go down in the history books as one of the most influential figures of our time.”
The Future of Solar
Evolving plans to bundle Tesla’s EV batteries with SolarCity’s rooftop panels could happen before this year is up, director of powertrain bizdev Mateo Jaramillo recently explained at the Platts California Power and Gas conference in San Francisco. Jaramillo added that Tesla’s only manufacturing site — for now (see below) — could be pounding out 50 megawatt-hours of stationary lithium-ion storage batteries for power backup and more by the start of 2015. That cleantech synergy means consumers — who are looking to plug their electric cars into their solar homes and thereby cleanly empower most of their living — may already have a one-stop shop to take their orders, and money, before the next presidential election.
Speaking of elections and money, after U.S. Republicans, bankrolled by dirty fuel titans, staged a midterm electoral comeback earlier this month, the solar sector as a result tanked rather hard, likely factoring decreasing support for solar and wind investment tax credits into future earnings.
But not SolarCity or Tesla: They are stable in a renewables market that’s gone sideways, plagued with political, economic and environmental uncertainty — at least until the next presidential election provides more clarity. Musk’s future industries have balanced out those worrisome politics, as well as surprise triumphs like America’s warming climate with China, to continue their ascendancy on both Wall Street and Main Street.
By the time that America and China — two solar power titans who also happen to supply Earth with the majority of its choking pollution — arrive at the monumentally important 2015 United Nations global warming conference in Paris, Musk’s Tesla and SolarCity will be at the ready with an alternative energy infrastructure, one actually worth saving, just waiting in the wings.
When calculating the future of solar, these events prove quite instructive, because even present uncertainties cannot stop future industries from arriving. They may barely slow them, no matter which parties win which elections in whatever countries. Eventually, always sooner than later, Earth’s inhabitants will need solar power, electric transportation and energy storage simply to survive. And while there are no shortage of power players in both the solar and EV spaces — from SunPower to Yingli to Nissan and beyond– Elon Musk is currently the prime mover of the 21st century’s electrified infrastructure.
In turn, he will likely prove as prescient as mass mobilizers from apocalypses past.
“My impression is that a desire to help stop global warming is deep in Elon’s bones,” CleanTechnica director Zachary Shahan said. “I think that drives most of his work at Tesla and SolarCity, and I think that genuine desire to help the world is one important reason why so many people love him.”
Let the Sunshine Jobs In
The future of solar, according to Elon Musk and his compatriots, is accelerating on both American coasts.
Earlier this year, Musk and the Brothers Rive bought California-based solar panel manufacturer Silevo, and quickly set into motion plans to build the largest plant in the Western hemisphere, creating 12,000 jobs in the process. It will touch down, aptly, in snow-banked Buffalo, once a dominating Rust Belt powerhouse, on a site once owned by Republic Steel, and it will be fed by a steady diet of brainiacs from a nearby State University of New York campus.
solar installersConsider it a glorious rebirth, but for a greener age.
“Buffalo is a town that’s gone through economic ups and downs and clearly with the steel industry moving away, it’s been depressed for decades,” Silevo spokesperson Chris Beitel told Bloomberg. “But Buffalo has strong engineering talent and a renewable energy source from hydro power with electricity costs that are among the lowest in the nation.”
Meanwhile, Tesla has the West Coast covered with the Gigafactory (PDF), arriving soon near the California-Nevada border at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Slated for operation in 2017, it is estimated to produce $100 billion in economic benefits, as well as north of 6,000 jobs (and counting), while manufacturing power cells for everything from Tesla’s electric cars and SolarCity’s storage batteries to drones, toys and grid backup. Production capacity, for both Tesla and SolarCity, is needed now more than ever, according to Musk.
“Essentially in the third quarter we sold every car, that was including cars from like showrooms and everything we basically had,” Musk explained on Tesla’s recent quarterly earnings conference call. “There was just nothing left to sell.”
“We don’t pay anyone to pretend that they like our product,” he added.
Of course, Musk and the Rive brothers — and anyone else working to build tomorrow’s future industries today — don’t have to pay for attention and attraction because we’re already, as a species in a race against time, far behind where we need to be. This is why Tesla’s electric cars don’t have to bother, or quantify, demand on their conference calls: The fact that states once known for their coal, oil and gas sectors are trying, and failing, to halt the expansion of Tesla stores onto their territory is a poker tell if there ever was one. The fact that SolarCity remains America’s top installer of solar panels — even though it hasn’t even made any yet, just made them affordable — is another tell. We the people want these cleantech convergences, and we want them now.
This is why Musk has fused his Tesla and SolarCity concerns on both American coasts, with the reusable rockets and orbital ambition of his SpaceX concern on standby. It is why Monsanto’s solar powerhouse SunEdison just bought wind behemoth First Wind, and it is why many more of these cleantech consolidations are on the way. Even fossil-fuel companies are wide awake to the sheer power of renewable energy: SunPower’s primary investor is French oil titan Total, while power plant producer NRG is moving quickly into the home solar market. [Disclosure: NRG recently acquired SolarEnergy.net’s parent company, PURE Energies. As always, we remain editorially independent.]
Everyone is racing to bridge the existential divide between the 20th-century fuels that could kill us all with the 21st-century cleantech that remains our primary hope for survival into the 22nd century. Some more slowly than others, but few, if no one, faster than Musk.
This is also why if those who believed in Musk’s future industries like Tesla and SolarCity would have seen a 1,421 percent gain in four years on their investments, if they decided to fund his convergent vision. That his products are necessary and inevitable could, in the end, say more about our currently intransigent, obsolete industries than it actually says about Musk. After all, who thought they were going to be driving Hummers and burning coal to keep the lights on for two more centuries? No one with a grasp of the future, that’s who.
And so Musk will continue to hammer out our renewable energy future, while also building advanced micro-satellites for ubiquitous internet, or pneumatic hyperloops for statewide commutes lasting a few scant hours in his spare time. These industrial convergences, empowered by solar and electrified by design, are indeed the future of us all, whether coal, oil and gas companies like it or not.
We better get on board now, before it’s too late.