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Can Elon Musk solve the world’s energy needs through solar power and electric cars?

An interesting article published recently in the New York Times has me wondering if there isn’t a vast technological and industrial shift taking place in the United States – and maybe beyond – and how tech icon Elon Musk may be at the center of it, unintentionally or otherwise.

In a nutshell, the Times story essentially said that electrical utilities are waking up to the fact that residential solar installations are stealing their business. While they currently generate less than 1 percent of the power in the United States, their proliferation may pose a threat to the very existence of power-generating utilities in the long term.

If enough people slather solar panels on their homes and become energy self-sufficient, what would they need the utility for? To which I say: exactly. There is a missing variable in this math, but I think Mr. Musk is already beginning to rectify the situation.

Power catch-22: net metering

Power companies are in a bit of pickle over solar power lately. They’ve spent years yelling into the loudspeaker about solar and wind power – and pushing consumers to jump on the bandwagon … except it turns out this approach is great for PR but not for profits. So renewable enthusiasm may be about to end as shareholders see stock prices drop by a nickel or two now, and perhaps by much more in the future. But if they push back against solar power after being a cheerleader, their profit-driven, coal-black souls are exposed and customers may flee for greener providers.

Solar power, despite high-profile business failures like Solyndra and a few others, is riding a wave of popularity. Put simply: It works. Plus, it’s relatively simple technology that will improve over time. It (currently) has government support at the federal level, and in many states in the form of tax breaks, rebates and funding assistance. It’s not exactly cheap to make or install — yet — so those dollars help and the process is largely codified. Over time, solar-powered homes can even “turn a profit” in one form or another in the form of “energy credits” or even real money through a process called net metering.

SolarCity-residence

Under net metering, utility companies have to in some fashion pay the owners of private solar power installations (or other generators of renewable power, like wind farms they don’t own) for power generated beyond the needs of the solar/wind power facility owner, like that guy down the street that just had the big solar array put on his roof. If you’re pulling all the juice you need out of the roof panels and the electrical utility pays or credits you for the excess power you pour back into the grid, you’re not a customer of theirs any more – you’re charging them, literally. Under this model, your solar array will eventually pay for itself and start making you money, or at least bank credits (aka free energy) for a rainy day.

Now multiply that by the millions of potential homeowners installing solar systems and you can see the utilities’ dilemma. Utilities do not like that kind of business model, thus the mounting pushback.

The Musk factor

So where does Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk fit into this mix? For one, people with roofs covered in power panels who are also parking his electric cars in their driveways are charging them up on the cheap – or even for free, if you twist the math just right. But while Musk is rightfully famous for his kick-ass electric cars and SpaceX private spacecraft company, he’s less known for his other venture: Solar City (scroll down a bit), “the leading solar company across the nation, serving thousands of people in 14 states,” per their website.

The Killer App for electricity: solar power for generation of electricity and an electric car as the mobility device.

Musk is a huge advocate of solar power, and not only because of his interest in Solar City. He understands its enormous and revolutionary potential. His Tesla SuperCharger stations, or just “Tesla Stations” as he calls them, which he is building out by the hundreds so Tesla owners can drive across America for free, typically include large solar power arrays in their construction or use solar-sourced energy.

So not only is Musk sticking it to the established carmakers as he sells over 4,000 Model S sedans a month at $60 grand or better, he’s becoming a thorn in the side of electrical utilities by fueling them for free or cheap. Combine solar panels with electric cars and you have the Killer App for electricity: solar power for generation of electricity and an electric car as the mobility device. No more electric bill, no more gasoline bill. The guy should watch his back.

Musk has been called many things: Futurist, industrialist, visionary, revolutionary, an egomaniac, the next Steve Jobs. Maybe he needs to head up a computer or cell-phone company in his free time. Kidding aside, the reality is the man finds himself in a leadership position in two huge industries — cars and electricity — at the same time the two are merging together. Given his Midas touch as of late, he could end up richer than Bill Gates with products more influential than Windows if he works to shape the transition. Given his talents, fortune and influence, it does not seem unreasonable.

Electric crossroads

But there’s another, potentially more revolutionary aspect of the solar power and electric car coupling that Musk has likely pondered: energy storage. In the current grid system, electricity is created pretty much on-demand. Utilities scale production up and down through each day and night to meet that demand and often vary the price of that power to best profit from that demand. Wisely, many electric cars coming to market can be “set” to only charge when rates are lowest,which is usually at night. But right now, there’s really no way to store large amounts of energy for release in case of a natural disaster or a sudden extraordinary spike in demand. With electric vehicles, however, this becomes possible.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

Electric cars can be seen as big wheeled batteries with enormous energy storage capacity. The bulk of a Model S’ 4,800 pound weight is battery storage, 85 kilowatts worth for the top-of-the-line model. How much power does a typical U.S. home consume? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it’s about 33 kilowatts a day on average, at least here in Oregon. Most other states are close to that number as well.

That means a fully charged 85kw Tesla Model S, given the ability to push power back from the battery into a home, could power normal usage for nearly three days if the grid were to fail. Turn off the TV, A/C and a bunch of other things and that timeframe could likely be extended by a fair amount. In a pinch, it wouldn’t take much tech-wise to reverse the flow of electricity and power all the gear in your home. After a big earthquake or similar disaster that takes down the main power grid, a solar-equipped home with an electric vehicle in the garage could keep refrigerators going to extend food supplies, charge cell phones and keep at least some lights on until the situation stabilizes.

The power of multiplication

Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk

Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk

Eventually, the world’s streets will be filled with electric vehicles of all sorts, each one carrying a high-capacity battery. At night or while we are at work, they sit quietly, charging up like giant D cells. Given critical mass, it’s not hard to imagine those fleets of electrics cars reverse-powering homes or even re-energizing the electrical grid across a city in a time of crisis. During the day, private solar and wind power sources could take over if main generation facilities are down, powering the grid and charging up the cars. At night, electric vehicles keep things going until the sun rises. It’s a symbiotic electrical relationship that works on small and large scales.

Solar power… is riding a wave of popularity. Put simply: it works.

How could Musk profit from all this? How about a package deal on a solar system and an electric car? You put a down payment on a Telsa car and Solar City installation combo, and part — maybe a large part — of your monthly payment could be made from net metering proceeds. That’s a big check a utility is going to be writing to Mr. Musk each month, in your name. Whole companies that do nothing more than broker all that “excess power” for you (for a small fee, of course) could spring up. It’s easy to see why the power utilities are now rethinking their position on solar power.

Now multiply that home-vehicle combination by the millions, even billions, worldwide. For many cities and countries, this could solve many energy problems far outside the occasional crisis, empowering people everywhere with both mobility and at the same time solving their power needs. With no dependence on fossil fuel thanks to solar power and a mix of other renewable sources (wind, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, etc.), a new era of energy independence, both at the personal and national level, could be ushered in.

Such a power system, free of fossil fuels and run at the personal level yet possessing network capability, could improve lives around the globe at very basic levels.

What needs to happen?

Naturally, all of this depends on the adoption of solar power by private citizens and businesses, and the popularity of electric cars (or in the short term, cars that have a battery for running on electricity alone for part of their range, like the Chevy Volt or the many plug-in hybrids now available).

While Jobs’ vision was to make real the Next Big Idea… Musk’s position in the power trade is more Zen master.

I’ve got gasoline in my veins, but after driving a Tesla, a Spark EV, a Ford Energi, a Brammo Empulse and any number of hybrids that can roll on electrons alone, I’m here to tell you it’s amazing how quiet, comfortable and efficient it is to drive (and ride) electric, especially when you can give the finger to Big Oil along the way. Gas-powered vehicles, as much as I love them, are inefficient, noisy, overly complicated and crude by comparison.

At this point in history, forward-thinking countries are acknowledging the many downsides of the petroleum economy: the enormous costs at the personal and state levels in terms of discovery, refinement and distribution, the pollution, the regional volatility it creates and the fact that at some point, it’s going to run out – or at least become hugely expensive to pull out of the ground. Even creating synthetic fuels in the amounts needed to meet current demands does not really solve the problem. You still have to burn it, so none of the deleterious atmospheric effects are mitigated. Petrol fuel in any form has a limited future, if it has one at all. Meanwhile, terawatts of free, reliable, clean solar power, more than we could ever use, pelts rooftops around the world each and every day.

Critics of EVs say if everyone buys an electric car and plugs it in, the electrical grid will crash. This is not true. At the recent unveiling of the Chevrolet Spark EV in Portland, one of the car’s developers, explained why. According to Lead Development Engineer Trista Scheiffer, the scale of the American power grid is so massive, it can readily absorb the steady increase in demand – usually at off-peak hours no less – when most cars would be charging up. If the ratio of solar-powered homes and large solar facilities in the American and international electrical grids continues to rise, as it likely will, it becomes even less of an issue.

In light of that fact, power utilities are most likely looking to change their game rather than fight off extinction from solar-powered houses since big power consumers – manufacturers, heavy industry and the like – will always create large energy demands that a network of plug-in cars and solar homes would not and should not generate. There will still be a place for large-scale energy providers.

Advanced Energy Systems One 100kW inverter I5-I205 interchange, Oregon Department of Transportation

Advanced Energy Systems One 100kW inverter I5-I205 interchange, Oregon Department of Transportation

Critics of solar power point to the cost – a legitimate point – and the aesthetics. Put that ugly thing on my nice roof? No way. Naturally, business ventures looking to capitalize on the surge in solar have taken this into account and are producing more eye-pleasing designs like this one from Dow or this roof from CertainTeed. Cost is a legitimate concern, but prospective buyers can, at this time, take advantage of state and federal help and know that over time, the power generated will cut or eliminate their power bill, and possibly earn them actual dollars or at least power credits.

Just like anything tech-oriented, competition will drive development of higher-performance and lower-cost solar systems in the future, lowering the barrier for more buyers and enlarging the market until overhead wires and coal plants are hopefully relics of the past.

With the passing of Steve Jobs, America is without a well-defined industrial and tech tycoon. Elon Musk fills the role well and has the chance to steer whole industries into a new era. While Jobs’ vision was to make real the Next Big Idea, improve computing experiences and sell a ton of Apple products, Musk’s position in the power trade is more Zen master, his mission being the enlightenment of conventional thinkers to the promise of a new age where transportation and energy needs converge and are served with a simple, clean and reliable solution.