Energy is fundamental to economic systems and, indeed, to all life. Elon Musk has always insisted that Tesla’s ultimate purpose isn’t to build cars — it’s to help the world to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward the embrace of sustainable energy sources. Tesla Inc.’s mission and vision statements reflect this nature in its expansive business model. Established in 2003, the company’s continued growth shows that the market is responding to the organization’s automotive and related products and its explicit vision for the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Tesla’s recent rebranding, in which the word “Motors” was deleted from the company name, represents its full business network now. Sure, there’s certain to be a lot of upcoming attention devoted to the vehicle line with the Model 3 release but, also, its other two other major markets are growing fast: solar roofs and battery systems. Each of these Tesla businesses has contributed to making distributed energy desirable on a broader scale than ever before.
Musk has made it his personal and business mission to help build the public understand how that transition to a sustainable energy future can take place. As the general public grows more aware of the current climate crisis, Tesla’s capacity to push for clean technology as a familiar part of our transportation and energy sectors increases.
Sustainable energy was the foundation of Musk’s vision in his original Master Plan and Master Plan, Part Deux. In the first plan, he called Tesla a conduit “to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.” In the second installment, he spoke of a future life still being good through the necessity of achieving “a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse.”
Instead of commodity supply and demand, Tesla will rely on technology to move markets toward that vision of a sustainable future. Yet any technological breakthrough takes lots of time and innovation, especially as decentralized energy systems break the high socioeconomic ceiling where it currently hovers.
Tesla as a renewable energy enterprise
Years ago, SolarCity agreed to sell its solar panels alongside Tesla’s Powerwall batteries. Now the two companies are one, and the battery system — including the larger-capacity commercial Powerpack —are powering residences, businesses, and even an island. Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada will likely change the battery industry, as it is scheduled to produce enough batteries to power nearly 500,000 vehicles annually by 2018. Musk says the whole point of the Gigafactory is to make batteries that can be used to store renewable energy like solar more affordable.
Through economies of scale, Tesla plans to reduce the per kilowatt hour (kWh) cost of its battery packs by 30%, according to the company website. Powerpack batteries hold the lowest-cost energy storage price on the market, lower even than those made by its partner Panasonic. “I’m not actually a fan of disruption for its own sake,” the CEO of Tesla said in 2015 at Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) annual convention for investor-owned utilities in New Orleans. “I don’t think we should disrupt things unless it’s…fundamentally better for society,” he said. “I’m just a fan of things being better.” EEI leaders had concurred that they are “in the midst of a profound transition” as they, too, consider how to continue business viability while addressing anthropogenic climate change.
Utilities are the target audience for Tesla’s larger battery, the Powerpack, which now starts at 50 kilowatts/210 kilowatt-hours and scales up indefinitely. Tesla has solidified agreements to generate 80 megawatt-hours with Southern California Edison and 52 megawatt-hours with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. And other projects are on Tesla’ planning calendar.
“The solution is both local power generation and utility power generation — it’s not one or the other,” Musk has acknowledged. This is a major shift for distributed energy.
Tesla as a business role model for a sustainable future
A low-carbon, electrified world can be more than a Utopian goal, according to Musk. “The fossil fuel industry is the biggest industry in the world,” Musk tells DiCaprio in the film, Before the Flood. “They have more money and more influence than any other sector. The more that there can be as sort of popular uprising against that, the better, but I think the scientific fact of the matter is we are unavoidably headed towards some level of harm.”
Musk is setting an example for industries across the world with the Gigafactory and other segments of its business network. Tesla’s business model offers opportunities for both innovative businesses and a way to reduce high CO2 emissions, which are at a worldwide crisis level. Because so much of the capital stock and infrastructure of modern economic systems are based on fossil-fuel energy use, any transition from fossil fuel dependence will involve massive restructuring and new investment.
With Musk’s leadership, Tesla is constantly reimagining, realigning, and reinvesting in itself. Solar roofs can now be seamlessly integrated with Tesla battery storage. A future expanded vehicle product line will likely include heavy-duty trucks and large passenger transport vehicles; Tesla’s catalog keeps growing and recreating markets. He’s spoken about “true self-driving” vehicles that exceed manual driving safety capacity and a Tesla car sharing idea. While Musk pursues his goals to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, he’s also helping to make humanity a multi-planet civilization with SpaceX as the starting place to build a colony on Mars.
Each spoke in the Tesla wheel is either about resisting or adapting to a changing climate. The harmonious interconnections among a residential solar roof, an onsite Powerwall 2 battery system, a Tesla all-electric vehicle, and car charger are crucial to decentralized energy. Utopian? Maybe. But, with Musk’s track record of business successes, the pathway to energy independence and a sustainable energy global system may be clearer than one thinks.