“Everything that that man touches turns to gold,” said my roommate after Elon Musk’s name came up in a conversation—and he just might be right. Ranking #38 on Forbes “World’s Most Powerful People” list, the man seems to be spearheading breakthrough after breakthrough in the technological industry.
Elon Musk’s professional life got off to an amazing start when he made PayPal into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise and founded the very innovative company SpaceX. Paypal has almost single-handedly made trade over the Internet very easy. SpaceX, which you might be less familiar with, is a relatively new company that has quickly become one of the frontrunners in the production of space rockets. It is one of the few companies now working on creating reusable rockets, which have the potential to drastically drive down the cost of space travel in the near future.
In 2008, Musk became the CEO of the company for which he is most well-known: Tesla motors. Tesla vehicles have become a glimpse into the future of vehicular transport, as their cars are both very well manufactured and powerful. Previously, it was commonly held that electric cars were weak and incompetent, and there was some truth to this. Early electric cars could neither travel long distances on a single charge nor reach high speeds. They were also usually small and unattractive.
However, with the emergence of Tesla, the public quickly learned that electric cars could be just as cool and capable as regular cars. The beautiful Tesla model S not only holds its own in comparisons with other supercars, as it can accelerate from 0-60 mph in just 2.8 seconds, but it can also travel up to 270 miles on one charge. To put that into comparison, most cars in America can travel up to about 300-400 miles on a full tank. On top of all this, Tesla is beginning to incorporate real autopilot into its vehicles, which is very exciting for the future of vehicular transport.
After making breakthroughs in the money-transfer industry, the space industry, and the vehicle industry, Elon Musk is looking to make perhaps his greatest contribution to mankind: a breakthrough in the renewable energy industry.
His new project, called Tesla Energy, focuses on enabling us to harness the sun, or as he likes to call it, the “handy fusion reactor in the sky.” What’s preventing us from using this handy fusion reactor right now? Conventional sources of energy still have an important upper hand over solar energy: they are easily accessible and usable during the night.
One response to this problem is to store energy collected during the day into batteries—so problem solved, right? Not really: even though the first “true” battery was invented two centuries ago in the year 1800, conventional batteries still have many flaws. They are expensive to make, inefficient, and occasionally defective—traits that would make anyone reluctant to give up the reliability of fossil fuels.
The problem of unsatisfactory batteries is what Musk wants to tackle first in his Tesla Energy project. His team has already designed a battery that completely eclipses current products. It has been named the PowerWall because, as its name suggests, it is wall-mountable, making it convenient to keep in any household. Furthermore, the power wall can be mounted on the outer walls of houses in most climates, as it’s able to operate efficiently in temperatures ranging from -4 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also highly efficient: if you charge the battery with 100 kWh of energy, it will discharge 92 kWh of electricity. All of these features should make the PowerWall very expensive. But Tesla will sell these for only about $3,000 each.
This is a great bargain. The Iron Edison 24V Lithium Battery, a comparable product, costs around $2,700. That’s $300 less than the PowerWall, but over the course of its life, the PowerWall gives you almost six times more total kWh. This has to do with the fact that the PowerWall has almost double the lifetime of the Iron Edison battery.
Furthermore, the Tesla PowerWall, paired with solar panels, can allow someone to live completely off the grid. With solar panels taking in sunlight and the PowerWall storing the collected energy, the average household would need no other energy source.
It’s important to note that the PowerWall is a very new technology. Over years, competition between companies will improve the efficiency of the PowerWall and batteries like it and therefore drive down costs.
Elon Musk’s team has also created the gigawatt-hour PowerPack, which can store even more energy. This will be used for places such as buildings and schools, as they require a lot more energy than the average home. Musk is not stopping there, however. He hopes the PowerWall and PowerPack will spread quickly enough to outpace the building of electric lines in the third-world countries so that this costly endeavor will be rendered unnecessary.
With Tesla’s current technology, about two billion gigawatt-hour PowerPacks will be needed to take care of all of Earth’s energy needs. This sounds like a ridiculous number, but it actually is not. Humans have already successfully mass-produced a much more costly product on this scale: the motor vehicle. There are currently about 1.2 billion motor vehicles in the world and seeing that the average cost of a new car in the United States is about $30,000, it is not crazy to believe that PowerPacks and PowerWalls can become just as prevalent.
If Musk’s predictions are correct and other companies begin to develop their own batteries, the end of fossil fuel usage may come sooner than expected. You might doubt the ability of one man and his company to significantly contribute to the end to the energy source powering humans across the world. But I’d argue that in the ’90s, no one could have imagined that within twenty years, cell phones would be able to understand human speech and handle video chats. The competition between Apple and Android has created phones capable of unbelievable things. This enormous rate of progress has occurred even despite the fact that Apple has kept its technology more or less secret. Tesla has an open source patent: anyone has access to information about how its products work. Using this technology, one can only imagine how far humans will get in harnessing renewable energy in the upcoming decades.
Harold Dorsey is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.