Elon Musk on the Future of Solar Power (TED Talk, 2/2013)

Elon Musk is trying to revolutionize the auto, energy and space exploration technology industries all at the same time. Here he is giving a TED talk on his companies SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity (from February). Below the video I put what he specifically said about solar energy from the official transcript. He is a co-founder of PayPal.




"EM: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we have to have sustainable electricity production as well as consumption, so I'm quite confident that the primary means of power generation will be solar. I mean, it's really indirect fusion, is what it is. We've got this giant fusion generator in the sky called the sun, and we just need to tap a little bit of that energy for purposes of human civilization. What most people know but don't realize they know is that the world is almost entirely solar-powered already. If the sun wasn't there, we'd be a frozen ice ball at three degrees Kelvin, and the sun powers the entire system of precipitation. The whole ecosystem is solar-powered.

CA: But in a gallon of gasoline, you have, effectively, thousands of years of sun power compressed into a small space, so it's hard to make the numbers work right now on solar, and to remotely compete with, for example, natural gas, fracked natural gas. How are you going to build a business here?

EM: Well actually, I'm confident that solar will beat everything, hands down, including natural gas.

(Applause) CA: How?

EM: It must, actually. If it doesn't, we're in deep trouble.

CA: But you're not selling solar panels to consumers. What are you doing?

EM: No, we actually are. You can buy a solar system or you can lease a solar system. Most people choose to lease. And the thing about solar power is that it doesn't have any feed stock or operational costs, so once it's installed, it's just there. It works for decades. It'll work for probably a century. So therefore, the key thing to do is to get the cost of that initial installation low, and then get the cost of the financing low, because that interest -- those are the two factors that drive the cost of solar. And we've made huge progress in that direction, and that's why I'm confident we'll actually beat natural gas.

CA: So your current proposition to consumers is, don't pay so much up front.

EM: Zero. CA: Pay zero up front. We will install panels on your roof. You will then pay, how long is a typical lease?

EM: Typical leases are 20 years, but the value proposition is, as you're sort of alluding to, quite straightforward. It's no money down, and your utility bill decreases. Pretty good deal.

CA: So that seems like a win for the consumer. No risk, you'll pay less than you're paying now. For you, the dream here then is that -- I mean, who owns the electricity from those panels for the longer term? I mean, how do you, the company, benefit?

EM: Well, essentially, SolarCity raises a chunk of capital from say, a company or a bank. Google is one of our big partners here. And they have an expected return on that capital. With that capital, SolarCity purchases and installs the panel on the roof and then charges the homeowner or business owner a monthly lease payment, which is less than the utility bill.

CA: But you yourself get a long-term commercial benefit from that power. You're kind of building a new type of distributed utility.

EM: Exactly. What it amounts to is a giant distributed utility. I think it's a good thing, because utilities have been this monopoly, and people haven't had any choice. So effectively it's the first time there's been competition for this monopoly, because the utilities have been the only ones that owned those power distribution lines, but now it's on your roof. So I think it's actually very empowering for homeowners and businesses.

CA: And you really picture a future where a majority of power in America, within a decade or two, or within your lifetime, it goes solar?

EM: I'm extremely confident that solar will be at least a plurality of power, and most likely a majority, and I predict it will be a plurality in less than 20 years. I made that bet with someone — CA: Definition of plurality is?

EM: More from solar than any other source."

But if there's another prolonged period of low sunspot activity like we saw between 1645-1715, will this affect sun consumption and the solar biz? See the Maunder Minimum ("prolonged sunspot minimum").

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