Tesla is on a runaway freight train headed towards the utility industry

Aosta Supercharger
Tesla solar powered Supercharger in Aosta, Italy

Tesla’s vision of the future is a world energized by solar and chaperoned by electric powered autonomous transportation, but the company’s overarching goal is to break our dirty fossil fuel habit. “The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what ‘sustainable’ means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone.

“By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse. Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better.”

The new plan reminds us that #4 on the original Master Plan was to “Provide solar power. No kidding, this has literally been on our website for 10 years.”

And just how does the irrepressible Mr. Musk expect to do that? Simple. “Create a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility (emphasis added), and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app.” A new development near Melbourne, Australia dubbed “Tesla Town” because it integrates solar panels with Tesla Powerwall battery storage units may offer a preview of the future.

solar powered community

Suburb dubbed “Tesla town” in Australia will have solar, Tesla’s Powerwall and EV charging in every home.

What Musk is proposing is nothing less than a complete reboot of how the world gets and uses electricity. That simple idea immediately puts in jeopardy trillions of dollars the world’s utility companies have invested in generating plants and grid infrastructure. They are not going to watch their investment evaporate without a fight.

In fact, the first skirmishes in the coming solar power war are already taking place. Warren Buffett’s NV Energy has gotten the Nevada Public Utilities Commission to impose draconian new fees on rooftop solar power. They are so onerous that they make rooftop solar no longer commercially viable within the state. SolarCity earlier this year ceased operations in Nevada — which has an abundance of solar energy available to it. More than 500 employees in Nevada were let go.

Switch, one of the world’s largest data center operators has recently filed suit in Nevada alleging fraud and collusion between the PUC and NV Energy. The local utility’s opposition to solar power is intense and is an indication of how far entrenched interests will go to hold on to their fiefdoms.

If Tesla thought it had a fight on its hands with franchise dealer groups, that is child’s play compared to the forces the utility industry is prepared to bring to bear against the idea of individuals making and using their own solar power. The desire to create one company that makes electric vehicles and the means to harvest the energy to operate them is behind Tesla’s recent proposal to purchase SolarCity in a $2.8 billion stock deal. Musk made explaining the need for the merger an important part of the new Master Plan.

“We can’t do this well if Tesla and SolarCity are different companies, which is why we need to combine and break down the barriers inherent to being separate companies. That they are separate at all, despite similar origins and pursuit of the same overarching goal of sustainable energy, is largely an accident of history. Now that Tesla is ready to scale Powerwall and SolarCity is ready to provide highly differentiated solar, the time has come to bring them together.”

Some quibble that Musk’s grand schemes take too long to mature. They sit back and feel secure in the knowledge that time is on their side. It’s not. Trying to resist his initiatives is like trying to hold back the tide. Just look at the havoc his tiny company that has never made more than 100,000 cars in a year has created in the boardrooms of companies that sell millions of vehicles. They are all scrambling to catch up with Tesla. The fact that the Model 3 has nearly 400,000 pre-orders is testament to the power of Musk’s vision.

The notion that utility companies need monopoly status to survive has been ingrained in our culture since the days when Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were creating the first utility grids. It’s an idea that has served the industry well. But like franchise dealer laws, it is now out of date. If Musk gets his way, it will soon be little more than an anachronism — like the internal combustion engine.

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