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Elon Musk

What Drives Elon Musk? The Roof is Not the Limit

Elon MuskWhat drives Elon Musk? It’s the power of innovation and to make the world better place. While it may sound amorphous, he is applying that ambition to ensure that not only more electric cars get on the road but also that more solar energy gets firmly rooted in the market. His latest: “Solar Roofs,” which consist not of the panels but of the whole roof.

At an Edison Electric Institute industry conference meeting about a year or so ago, the chief executive of Tesla and the chair of SolarCity told audience members that one of his most immediate goals was to manufacturer a $35,000 all-electric car — a cousin of the vastly more expensive one that the company now sells. Such a car is due out in 2017. His goal, overall, is make sure we leave behind a healthier planet for those who follow — that the technologies to which he pursues get mainstreamed and cost-effective for the masses.

No pun intended, but the roof is not the limit.

“It’s a solar roof as opposed to a module on a roof,” Musk said on a SolarCity earnings call, as reported by CNN. “It’s not a thing on the roof, it is the roof. “If your roof is nearing end-of-life, well, you’ve got to get a new roof anyway,” Musk explained. “And so, why not have a solar roof that’s better in many others ways as well?”

Tesla’s $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity is just a start. Being able to package solar panels or solar roofs with battery technology that can harness electrons and release them later on is phase one. The fact that others are following suit is a good thing, made even better because the US government is helping to finance some of the projects.

The Energy Department has funded at least 15 other projects – some $185 million in all – to advance energy-storage technology. That’s a drop-in-the-bucket when compared to what the International Energy Agency in Paris says is needed, or $380 billion by 2050 – across the globe. Tesla has received a roughly $500,000 loan from the agency, as well as tax incentives from Nevada for its Giga-factory there.

Further, there has been more megawatts stored in the last year around the world than over the last 30 years, says DNV GL. California’s mandate to install 1,325 megawatts of energy storage by 2020 will continue to be a catalyst, it adds. And that will come on top of the 200 megawatts that are now online in Hawaii. 

Tesla is offering a proven technology at a price point that the storage industry has long struggled to achieve, and one where storage becomes economically attractive in many energy markets, especially in combination with solar,” says Ralph Masiello, senior vice president for DNV GL, in an earlier email exchange.

The one-two punch whereby a company offers solar panels and energy storage looks on the surface to be smart. Whether the market thinks that, though, is yet to be seen. In the end, it’s about making solar plus storage both accessible and affordable.

As for Tesla, it will sell its residential storage batteries for about $3,500, although the cost does not include “inverters” that manage voltage levels during charging and discharging. They are lithium-ion batteries, which can discharge for an hour. Such devices have been marketed since 2013 through Solar City Corp.

“I believe that both grid-scale storage and residential and commercial storage will play a key role, just like grid-scale solar and residential solar are both playing a key role on the grid,” says Jack Azagury, managing director of Accenture’s North American group, in an interview. “Utilities have a significant opportunity to leverage grid scale storage to strengthen the grid, improve reliability and defer investments.”

It is all a bunch of hype? The technologies are making their way into markets, all pushed by consumers who are demanding them and all enabled by government officials who are facilitating them. Some products will make it commercially, and some won’t. That’s free market economics. And some of what Elon Musk is selling will make it and some won’t. As for the solar roof, well, it sounds like a a great idea in the making — something that may follow the path of solar panels, which are now so popular in some parts of the country.

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