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August 3, 2021

First the car industry, now Elon Musk takes on old-style utilities

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Elon Musk with the Tesla Tuscan glass tile. Photo Tesla/SolarCity
Elon Musk with the Tesla Tuscan glass tile. Photo Tesla/SolarCity

By Giles Parkinson

Six months ago, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk signalled the end of the internal combustion engine when he unveiled what was then hailed as the world’s first ‘mass market’ electric vehicle, the Tesla Model 3.

On Friday, in Los Angeles, Musk unveiled the latest elements of his plan to lead a global push to 100 per cent renewable energy – a solar roof shingle and the second generation of his home and utility scale battery storage offerings.

It was revealed with a lot less fanfare and a lot less pizazz than the Model 3, and the models S and X before it, but the launches of the solar tile and the Powerwall 2 and the Powerpack 2 are no less significant.

Firstly, it signals a change in thinking about how to integrate solar energy. Built-in solar PV (BIPV) will become ubiquitous in rooftops, windows and even walls. Musk is not the first to bring solar roofs to the market, but because of his company’s marketing cache, he is the first to bring it to the mainstream.

Secondly, it underlines just how quickly battery storage costs are falling, and this is key to changing the way we think about electricity and the way it is produced and delivered.

The incumbent utility industry is basing the slow evolution of its business model on the assumption that battery storage costs will not match the fall in the cost of solar PV. Maybe, they say, the costs might fall 10-15 per cent a year. It’s pretty clear, at least in the case of Tesla, that they have nearly halved in just a single year.

Tesla Powerwall 2
Tesla Powerwall 2

The Powerwall 2 (now rectangular, see left) packs twice the energy of the first model (14.5 kwh), but because it now includes inverters and other software integration, its installation price is not going to be significantly more expensive than the original price for the Powerwall 1.

And, of, course, Tesla is not the only company bringing down battery storage – its competitors are also achieving significant cost cuts to stay ahead of the game, and as manufacturing costs fall.

The announcements of the solar roof and the new battery storage produces are the second and third elements of Musk’s plan for the world to become 100 per cent renewable energy. He imagines homes with solar on or in their roofs, and battery storage and electric vehicles in the garage. ‘It’s really not that complicated,’ he says.’

But it does turn the current thinking about energy systems upside down.

Electricity will be largely ‘distributed’ rather than centralised, meaning it will come from local sources, such as rooftops and community level projects, rather than a centralised generator hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.

The system will act in a different way. Rather than shifting supply (switching coal, gas and hydro generators off and on) to match demand, the focus will shift on shifting demand to match supply. This will come from storage, load shifting and demand response, which will play an increasing role in a smarter, more responsive grid.

The system will be cleaner. Where centralised generation continues to be used, it will be based around renewables – particularly wind and solar. Coal and eventually gas fired generation will find themselves sidelined and then redundant.

And the power will shift from centralised oligopolies to a kind of energy democracy. If only because most consumers will have so many different options, but most of all the ability to generate, store power themselves and share and trade power with their neighbours and peers.

And no, it won’t happen overnight, but it is likely to happen a lot more quickly than most expect – particularly the conservative politicians who insist that coal fired generation will last for decades to come.

Musk gave us a taste of this thinking in his presentation. He says a world of 100 per cent clean energy means that all its energy needs will come from electricity – around one third transport, one third heating and manufacturing uses, and one third electricity.

And he expects local generation – and by that he means predominantly rooftop and local solar and battery storage – will account for one third of all electricity needs.

Utilities will still have a role, he said, because they will be needed to generate and transport the remaining two thirds from the source to demand. But the model will obviously change, in some cases quite radically, because their delivery costs cannot occur at the prices charged in Australia, for instance, where things have gotten completely out of control.

Musk’s message is that technology is driving this transition, and so too is the need to address climate change. He began his presentation in front of a graph showing the rising levels of Co2 in the atmosphere, to their current levels of 404 parts per million. ‘Global warming is a serious crisis and we need to do something about that,’ he said.

And his message is – and it is rapidly dawning on consumers, to people in industry, and even to politicians – that while this is a challenge, it does not mean more expensive or unreliable energy. In fact, the opposite is true.

What’s more, it can be fun. Musk says electric vehicles did not look good, had low range and lousy performance. They were golf carts. His Tesla range changed that, and the industry with it.

Musk now wants solar roofs to become as attractive and desirable as an electric car. ‘We want solar roofs that look better than normal roof, generate electricity, last longer’ he says, and where the installed cost is less than that of a normal roof and the cost of electricity. ‘Why would you buy anything else.’

Musk sees the potential market as 5 million new roofs being built in the US each year, and presumably the tens of millions being built elsewhere. But the unveiling was short on technical details and cost. We do not know, for instance, the efficiency of the solar shingles or how much electricity they can deliver to the household. The company promises we will hear more of that later if the merger with Solar City goes through.

Musk is right about the shingles looking good, and it will be interesting to see if he finds it more difficult to break into the roofing market than he did into the motor market, given that this product will only be good for new roofs (there are five million of them in the states each year) and replacement roofs. As Greentech Media observes, this in an inherently conservative industry.

So too, however, was the motor market, which had a lot to protect – exclusive distribution, servicing, repairs and fuels – that Tesla threatened. But Tesla found a way through that.

Again, there is no telling whether it will be Tesla products that dominate future energy markets, whether his company will prosper long term or whether the merger with Solar City will succeed. It doesn’t actually matter.

Musk is identifying the mega trends and getting in early, with a branding that cuts through to the general population in ways that no other EV manufacturer, battery storage maker or solar manufacturer had been able to do. Others will follow and make a success of it, because the trend is clear.

Musk understands the power of making a product look desirable. And he is coming up with a new catchline that sounds a lot more appealing than the Coalition’s dull focus on ‘energy security’, which they mean to be coal and gas.

Musk breaks it down a different way – ‘beautiful, affordable, integrated’. As Musk says himself, ‘why would you do anything else?’

This article was first published in RenewEconomy and is reproduced here with permission.

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  1. I suppose the second object, Len, could be, “…to be understood.” I read the article and I gather you did too, unless you commented without reading it. That’s two reads? Anyway, what’s your point, Len?


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