Monthly Archives: August 2016

Selling the Tesla lifestyleTesla is looking to create its own ecosystem, this one centered on sustainable energy, solar panels and batteries. (Kagan McLeod / For The Times)

If you’re wondering about Elon Musk’s latest vision for Tesla, think Apple.

Apple succeeded in turning a bland market for electronic devices into a coveted and connected lifestyle where your phone, your tablet, your computer, your watch and your television can all be bought in one place and work seamlessly together.

It’s about passion too. People continue to line up at Apple stores overnight to be the first to possess the latest iPhone. The company’s launch events resemble the gathering of a cult.

At Tesla Motors, Musk tapped into that kind of branding magic when he built electric cars that drive fast and look good. The spring launch of the upcoming Model 3 evoked an Apple-like frenzy in stores and online.

Now he’s looking to create his own ecosystem, this one centered on sustainable energy, solar panels and batteries. It’s a much less sexy realm than cars but at least as ambitious.

In recent weeks, Musk began to rapidly expand the Tesla footprint: merging with SolarCity to bring a major solar energy company into the fold, and laying out a sweeping “master plan” to transform Tesla beyond cars, by expanding into eco-friendly trucks and buses, ride-sharing and more.

The bold entrepreneur envisions Tesla stores as all-in-one destinations for green-minded shoppers, where one can buy an electric car, a charging station, a solar rooftop for the house and a futuristic-looking battery to store the excess power, all in the same place.

“In order for people to go en masse to sustainability, you really need to create something that doesn’t have a lot of compromises,” Musk said Friday in an interview with The Times. “Easy to order, easy to install, looks great when done.”

But unlike Apple, which sells far less expensive consumer products, Tesla is venturing into new territory at a time when it hasn’t proved that it can make money or meet production deadlines.

To become the first provider of a comprehensive clean energy lifestyle, Musk needs to sell not just products, but present the combined company as a fresh creator of a new way of living, with image and branding and marketing that convince consumers of all kinds to shell out big bucks to be part of it.

“We’ve got to reach people for whom the environment is not their top priority,” Musk said. “What really matters is how do we get a lot of people to make the transition, not just a few.”

Noah Hagey, 43, a lawyer and co-founder of the BraunHagey & Borden law firm in San Francisco, is already part of the tribe.


First his family bought a Tesla Model S sedan, which they considered a jumping-off point for environmental good deeds. A few months later, they installed solar panels on the roof of their Oakland hills home. When Tesla’s Powerwall went on sale, Hagey put in an order.

“It just seemed like the obvious thing to do, to see how off the grid you can get,” Hagey said.

He didn’t buy panels from SolarCity. Instead, Hagey chose a local contractor experienced with tricky-to-work-with Spanish tile roofs.

But if the Tesla showroom had had solar panels on offer, “I could have seen doing a package deal,” he said. “It’s kind of shocking how well the stuff this guy builds works.”

Now Musk needs many, many more customers like Hagey for his plan to work.

Right now, Tesla’s main draw is upper-income households. Most people can’t afford a Model S, which starts at $70,000, and many millennials can’t even afford a house, much less a solar roof.

Hagey knows this and is counting on Musk to lower costs over time.

“This thing has to be mass market,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s going to work.”

But to be mass market, going green has to have mass appeal. As it is, early adopters have flocked to the save-the-world philosophy espoused by Musk, but many everyday consumers simply aren’t there yet — and cool marketing might not be enough to convince them otherwise.

“You buy Tesla because of the brand,” said Shayle Kann, a vice president at news and research firm GreenTech Media. “You’re not doing it to save money. Whereas with solar, the single thing that has been most important in getting the widespread adoption of solar … is people saving money on their electric bills.”

Most people have reliable electric service, and many aren’t convinced that they’ll save enough money with solar to make installation worth it. And the subject can be enormously complicated. Fewer than 5% of U.S. homes have solar panels, although that number is growing fast.

Meanwhile, the market for storing power from solar panels – which was less than $200 million in 2012 – will have grown to $19 billion by 2017, according to a report by IMS Research.


Musk figures that Tesla stores will offer a convenient spot for consumer education. By consolidating the buying process using Tesla’s established — and rapidly growing — footprint of retail stores that are trafficked by serious buyers and people who just want to look at a hot car, he predicts that he can move solar into the mainstream.

“You want one sales process, one installation event, no finger-pointing if something’s not working, one service contract, one app to see how it’s doing and make adjustments,” Musk said during the interview. “It’s what you’d want as the end customer.”

Tesla has opened 260 stores to date — most in upscale markets — and plans a total of 441 by the end of 2017, when Tesla’s relatively affordable Model 3 is expected to become available. Owned by Tesla and staffed by Tesla employees, the stores serve as retail showrooms for the company’s sleek and expensive Model S electric sedan and Model X electric SUV. Soon, solar panels will join the merchandise mix.

Many of these showrooms are located within walking distance of Apple stores, and in fact Tesla consciously drew on those stores for inspiration, with their airy feel, dutiful employees and emphasis on fine design.

The company has counted 3 million visitors so far. They demonstrate an interest in solar living just by walking through the door.

They might be attracted by the vehicles, but Musk said it’s the connection between home-solar batteries and rooftop panels that’s the key to his energy ecosystem.

Already, the Powerwall, Tesla’s new solar battery for the home, is on prominent Tesla showroom display. It stores excess energy during the day to charge a car, provide electricity at night or serve as backup in a blackout emergency. The price starts at $3,000.


The Powerwall’s most notable aspect is its appearance. Competing batteries, just as functional, look like chunks of industrial equipment. The Powerwall is a sleek piece of sculpture, harmonizing with the lines of the Model S it hangs next to.

SolarCity’s rooftop panel installations aren’t nearly so sexy. Musk said he wants to address that. They need to be “beautiful,” he said.

“This is very important,” he said at a media event last month at Tesla’s new battery factory near Reno. “This needs to be an asset to your house. It needs to be so good that when it’s done you call your neighbors over to show them how proud you are. ”

Before he makes solar panels beautiful, Musk will have to make them look attractive in the stores and online, to fit the stores’ Tesla motif.  Three weeks ago, Tesla lured Chester Chipperfield – a handsome young man with blond locks – from Apple and named him global creative director.

Although a customer will be able to buy what might be called the Full Tesla, a complete package including car, charger, solar rooftop and battery, the company will be happy to break it into sub-components for customers who don’t want it all.

Those pieces, however, all will come with Tesla software to manage home and auto energy use. The more the software is integrated into a full system, the more powerful the system becomes. And, as with Apple, the less likely you are to switch to someone else’s information ecosystem. That’s called lock-in. If you like the system, great. If not, you’re kind of stuck.

Longtime Silicon Valley watcher Rob Enderle, who runs Enderle Group research, said it’s likely that Tesla could expand its energy management software throughout the home, covering major appliances and smaller household objects equipped with silicon chips and connected through the so-called Internet of Things.

“It moves Tesla from being a car company to being a home automation company, and a powerful one,” Enderle said, going up against companies like Google’s Nest.

And it will distinguish Tesla from other automakers.

“Tesla would be part of your home, not just part of your transportation system,” he said. “That brings them much closer to their customers, far more than any other car company. That’s something no one else has.”

At this point, there’s more theory than substance to Musk’s vision. There’s no guarantee that people are ready to flock to solar power in the numbers necessary for success. There’s no assurance that he can bring prices down for cars and energy systems low enough to appeal to the masses. It’s unclear whether a market exists for a home energy software ecosystem powerful enough to hold customers loyal.

“It doesn’t make any business sense at all,” says Jim Nelson, chief executive at Sunworks, a SolarCity competitor and a corporate customer of Tesla’s Powerwall. “The solar business and the electric car business are unrelated businesses. They are artificially connected.”

Right now, Tesla’s stock is a short-seller favorite. Neither Tesla nor SolarCity are profitable; both depend on investor infusions and government subsidies for cash flow. The SolarCity deal seems more like a bailout by the better-capitalized Tesla than an organic business strategy, several financial analysts have opined.

But Musk has proved himself capable of beating odds and delivering the goods, from his early days at PayPal, to the surprising success of his SpaceX rocket launching company, to the rabid consumer embrace of Tesla automobiles.

Except for the short sellers, nobody’s counting him out.

One aspirational fanboy is Michael Figueroa, 39, of Laguna Hills. One day, he plans to trade his Acura or Volkswagen for a Tesla Model X. He’s already had a SolarCity array installed on his home’s roof. A Powerwall is on the wish list too.

“I want to manage my energy on my own. That’s where the future’s going,” Figueroa said. “No other company is trying to capitalize on that, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Article By: Russ Mitchell

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Ministers create presentation to show how idle land around nuclear disaster site can be used to produce renewable energy

An abandoned ferris wheel in the town of Pripyat, which was abandoned after the accident.
An abandoned Ferris wheel in the town of Pripyat, which was abandoned after the accident. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The contaminated nuclear wasteland around Chernobyl could be turned into one of the world’s largest solar farms, producing nearly a third of the electricity that the stricken plant generated at its height 30 years ago, according to the Ukrainian government.

In a presentation sent to major banks and seen by the Guardian, 6,000 hectares of “idle” land in Chernobyl’s 1,000 square km exclusion zone, which is considered too dangerous for people to live in or farm, could be turned to solar, biogas and heat and power generation.

Pressure has been mounting for years to allow industrial development, but no indication is given of where the solar panels would be located. “There has been a change in the perception of the exclusion zone in Ukraine. Thirty years after the Chernobyl tragedy [it] reveals opportunities for development. A special industrial area is to be created in compliance with all rules and regulations of radiation safety within the exclusion zone,” says the presentation.

Tens of thousands of people in Ukraine, Belarus and south Russia were evacuated immediately after the 1986 accident from a wide area around the nuclear plant and places where the radioactive plume descended. A few hundred people still live in 11 semi-deserted villages close to Chernobyl.

There is “about 6,000 hectares of idle land, some of which can be used for placement of electrical generation facilities, and some for energy crops”, according to the presentation.

The Ukrainian government said more than 1,000MW of solar and 400MW of other renewable energy could be generated. The nuclear plant had an installed capacity of around 4,000MW.

The advantage of generating renewable power at the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is that the land is cheap and plentiful, and the sunshine is as strong as in southern Germany. In addition, the grid infrastructure and high-voltage power lines needed to transmit electricity to the national grid remain intact, the presentation added.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) this week indicated it would be prepared to lend money for the renewable energy plan. The EBRD has already provided more than $500m (£379m) to build a large stainless steel “sarcophagus” over the destroyed reactor, which will remain dangerous for thousands of years.

“The EBRD may consider participating in the project so long as there are viable investment proposals and all other environmental matters and risks can be addressed to the bank’s satisfaction,” said a spokesman.

The move to solar reflects a new energy reality involving plunging renewable energy costs and escalating costs of nuclear power. Hours of sunshine in the Chernobyl area compare favourably with southern Germany, one of the largest solar producers in the world.

In a recent interview, Ukraine’s ecology minister said the government was negotiating with two US investment firms and four Canadian energy companies, which have expressed interest in the Chernobyl’s solar potential.

Meanwhile, in Belarus, just 20 miles from Chernobyl, a 22.3MW solar plant is already under construction in Brahin district, around 20 miles from Chernobyl. The district was one of the most contaminated by Chernobyl’s fallout and the land where the plant is to be built is not suitable for agriculture.

Article By: John Vidal

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  • Courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago

It’s often smarter to borrow from nature than reinvent the wheel.

That was the approach of researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to remove carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the atmosphere, and convert it into an efficient, inexpensive fuel.

The result: an artificial leaf that turns CO2  into fuel, “at a cost comparable to a gallon of gasoline” could render fossil fuel obsolete, according to the researchers.

The “leaf” is one of a growing number of inventions that mimic photosynthesis to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, and convert it into new, sustainable forms of energy to power our world.

“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic — it’s photosynthetic,” said Amin Salehi-Khojin, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and the study’s lead author, in a statement. “Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

The solar cells, built by Dr. Salehi-Khojin and his team, function like plant’s leaves. Except instead of converting carbon dioxide into sugar, the artificial leaf converts the gaseous compound into synthesis gas — a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Synthesis gas, or syngas, could be burned for fuel, or converted into diesel or other hydrocarbon fuels.

The concept of reduction reaction — converting CO2  into a burnable form of carbon — isn’t new. But scientists previously relied on silver and other expensive precious metals to break gas into storable energy. UIC researchers took a different approach. They relied on a nanostructured compound, a transition metal dichalcogenide (TMCD), to break down carbon dioxide. They paired a kind of TMCD — a nanoflake tungsten — with an ionic liquid inside a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell.

When light strikes the “leaf,” hydrogen and carbon monoxide bubble from the cathode, while free oxygen and hydrogen ions are released from the anode.

Leafs could be spread throughout a solar farm, or used in smaller applications, the researchers said.

The invention isn’t the only one of late to use the concept of photosynthesis to create a new form of energy. The researchers note the process they employed has been used to create other forms of hydrogen energy. Researchers at Harvard University have even created hydrogen through synthetic photosynthesis in a process they say is 10 times more efficient than in nature, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Jason Thomson reported in June.

That process relies on bacteria. The system is confined to a jar with just two electrodes, Ralstonia eutropha bacteria, and water. When an electric current passes through the electrodes, it breaks the water molecules down, releasing hydrogen gas.

“You can use hydrogen as a source of energy, [and] burn it,” co-author Pamela Silver of Harvard University told the Monitor. “Instead, we decided to take advantage of bacteria that take in hydrogen and carbon dioxide and use them to grow.”

As they grow, explains Dr. Silver, these organisms produce certain compounds. The bacteria can be genetically engineered to make useful things like alcohol and plastic precursors.

While the artificial leaf UIC researchers invented is just artificial, not bionic, it’s applicability isn’t confined to this world. They note it can even be used if water is found on Mars. Mars’s atmosphere is mostly CO2 , after all.

Article By: Ben Rosen

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