Elon Musk

Renewable Energy’s Growing Pains

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — A recent article in The Economist, called A World Turned Upside Down, portrayed a rather gloomy outlook for renewable energy. This was not because of shifting political winds, as some might expect, or the oft-repeated fact that the sun does not shine at night. Instead, the authors pointed to two discrete facts. First, building out the infrastructure required to reach critical mass for renewables will be enormously expensive. Second, the economics around the receipt and delivery of electricity are changing dramatically, largely due to the impact of renewables. While the two facts themselves are indisputable, the conclusions drawn from them are less so.

The story goes on to point out how utility revenues are falling. Renewables cost much less to operate, which brings prices down. Plus, when people put solar panels on their roofs, they no longer need to buy power from utilities, at least not during the peak sunshine hours. However, they still expect the utility to provide power to them when the sun goes down. That requires a lot of resources on the part of the utility that someone needs to pay for.

In many ways, the issue is analogous to—though slightly ahead of—what will soon be playing out on the highways. Money to maintain the roads is largely collected from state and federal taxes on gasoline. As more people shift to efficient hybrids or fully electric cars, less money is collected for road repairs, while the amount of driving remains roughly the same. This is an issue you can expect to hear more about in the future and it will likely cause some consternation, though I don’t expect to see getting rid of EV’s widely supported as the solution.

It’s also important to note where the analogy falls apart. Roads are maintained largely by the government as public infrastructure and paid for through taxes. Most of the electric grid is owned and maintained by private interests that are expected to show a profit each quarter. This difference is the current point of pain.

Women In Technology Face Many Unique Challenges

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – “Women in the technology industry face many unique challenges that are often beyond their control,” says Dennis Kennedy, founder and chairman of the National Diversity Council.

Toyota Invests $50 Million In Artificial Intelligence

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already part of our everyday lives. We often don’t know it because it’s not obvious. However, the next wave of AI-enabled devices will interact with humans in a far more noticeable way via intelligent robots and autonomous cars.

Will Tesla New Energy Storage Batteries Change the Game?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Electricity is like money. Both are useful, fluid and can be converted into action of many different forms. And both can be saved for a rainy day. The ability to save electricity for a rainy, or cloudy day, has suddenly become much more important now that solar, as well as wind power are becoming important contributors to our energy supply.

Without storage, these renewable sources of electric power, would have to be backed up with other sources that can produce power when they can’t, which undercuts their economic usefulness.

Utility studies have found that energy storage in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable price could, in some circumstances, obviate the need for new power plants.

That’s why the recent announcement by Tesla Motors of their new battery systems, designed to be used for energy storage for homes, businesses, and utilities, is causing such a stir. While the utility analysis said that the breakeven point for storage would occur when the price per kWh fell below $350, which they predicted was years away, Tesla surprised everyone, by showing up with a utility scale battery right now, that they claim can deliver storage at $250 per kWh.

Tesla’s Powerwall for the home is a flat wall-mounted package that provides 10 kWh of storage and will sell for $3500. It will provide battery backup if the grid goes down or it can store electricity from solar panels in an off-grid configuration. By next year, these will be produced by Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada.

For utilities, the 100 kWh Powerpack is a scalable module that can go up to gigawatt levels at the $250 per kWh price point. One utility, said Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has already contracted for a 250 MWh system.

Indeed, the biggest impact may be in the utility-class application. Some concerns have been raised about the residential offerings by, among others, SolarCity, a major supplier that happens to have Elon Musk on its board. SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass says they are not happy with the available configurations or the economics. Of the two offerings, only the smaller 7 kWh unit is designed to be charged and discharged on a daily basis. And given the fact that many localities allow the grid to fill in the gaps when the sun is not shining, that calls into question the economics of purchasing a home battery, unless you are completely off-grid. The larger 10kWh battery, is designed for backup when the grid goes down. That would be more attractive for high-end homes or small businesses with a critical need for constant power.

Barclays, Citing Solar Threat, Downgrades Electric Utilities

(3Bl Media/Justmeans) - Will large capital-intensive power plants become the buggy whips of the 21st century, finding themselves in the undesirable position of no longer being needed?

Rob Wile of in Business Insider seems to think so.  “It’s been a good run,” he says in the closing line of his assessment of the outlook for the electric utility industry. Citing the sector downgrade by investment bank Barclays from “market weight” to “underweight,” which refers to how much utility investment they are recommending for a typical portfolio, he sees trouble ahead.

That trouble comes in the form of residential solar, which is increasingly taking on the form of a perfect storm from the utilities’ perspective. First, the price of installed rooftop solar has plummeted, falling by half since the year 2000. That led to a rising number of installations, but the utilities could still count on continued sales since they continued to serve as the primary source of storage in the grid-connected systems that have been the predominant configuration. But now the cost of battery storage, helped along by the commercialization of electric vehicles, has also dropped. And if Elon Musk keeps his promise about a super-factory for batteries, the price will drop even further. In this case utilities will be the provider of last resort, only used when all else fails. Yet, even that requires the utilities to maintain roughly the same level of infrastructure as they do today, with little in the way of revenue to show for it.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the old saying, “why buy the cow, if you can get the milk for free?”

The problem is, we need to keep the utilities around, at least for the foreseeable future, because we need them to maintain the grid and to continue to deliver power those who can’t generate their own and also to those who can during those long cloudy spells, when the solar panels are idle and the batteries drained.

Electric Cars Get A Jump Start in China

Anyone concerned about the planet's future and our ability to bring our climate-disrupting emissions under control, can't help but regularly steal nervous glances at China. What China, with its massive population and prodigious growth rate does or doesn't do, will have a significant impact on all of us. So when China said they wanted 500,000 "new energy vehicles” on the road by next year and five million by 2020, many of which would be driven by first time car buyers newly entering the middle class, that gave us reason to be hopeful. Many have been skeptical that such numbers could be achieved. Especially since last year, only 17,600 EVs were sold. Today, there are approximately 50,000 of them on the road.

But a number of recent developments could be turning up the heat.

First, Chinese EV-maker BYD, which is partially backed by Warren Buffett, has been selling most of their cars in their home city of Shenzhen. Earlier this week, they gained approval to begin selling in Beijing with its population of 11.5 million. Beijing officials will provide a subsidy for EVs and they also commit to installing 100 charging stations in the city by the end of the year with roughly ten charging units per station. This roughly coincides with Swiss electrical equipment-maker ABB's announcement that it would begin making and marketing wall-mounted home electric vehicle chargers in China. The chargers are being developed for Denza, a new joint venture between BYD and Daimler.

Says Chunyuan Gu, ABB's top man in China, "Either you believe or you don't believe. What's difficult to predict is how fast the volume will come."

BYD also received approval this week to sell its plug-in hybrid, the Qin, in Shanghai

China's fast growing car market is attracting the attention of automakers around the globe. Last year 22 million cars were sold there, compared with 15.6 million in the US. Major problems like air pollution and gridlock are leading local officials to tighten restrictions on new drivers' licenses, which will slow the pace of growth. Electric cars, which don't contribute to air pollution are getting a warmer reception.

Some people believe that were are approaching a point of “peak cars” altogether, but that is clearly still a ways off in China.

Did N.Y. Times Reporter Deliberately Sabotage Tesla Model S Road Test?

New York Times reporter John Broder recently wrote of a harrowing experience test driving the Tesla Model S, but data logs taken during the test drive suggest he may have sabotaged the test drive for the sake of a more provocative story.

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