When Will Elon Musk Start Making Solar Panels?

By Doug Mohney February 28, 2014

Elon Musk is in the running to be a twenty first century Andrew Carnegie or George Westinghouse.   I'm going to double down on an earlier prediction and state that Musk is going to get into the solar panel manufacture business in the future to feed into his web of interests -- especially cars & batteries.

Tesla Motors announced this week it is going to build what Musk calls the world's largest battery factory.  It plans to build a 10 million square foot facility expected to cost $5 billion and generate 6,500 jobs.   Locations in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas are under consideration. 

The "gigafactory" will crank out more lithium ion batteries on its own per year by 2020 than the world's total production today in 2013. We're talking high tech in combination with industrial production that no other company in the world has discussed or apparently even contemplated.   

At full production in 2020, most of the 500,000 batteries per year are earmarked for Tesla cars.  Mass production should drive down the cost of existing and future generation lithium ion batteries.  About the only question in the current scheme is if the plant will be flexible enough to roll in newer, more promising battery chemistry and architecture types as they become more practical.

It's the "extras" after car needs are met that are giving rise to speculation.   Musk is also involved with SolarCity, a turnkey system integrator that puts solar power on the rooftops of individuals and businesses in a lease-back scheme.  Users pay for power generated at low, locked-in, long-term rates, while Solar City holds the note on the installation and capital equipment. 

SolarCity's most recent offering is a home energy storage system -- a big battery, using "technology engineered by Tesla."  When the sun goes down, people still need power, so home energy storage can keep the lights running and potentially save more money by using stored power than utility-supplied electricity.

In one fell swoop, Tesla is feeding not one, but two different companies with lower cost lithium ion batteries.  The kilowatt-hour price of batteries is expected to drive pricing down by 30 percent.  Solar power becomes much more attractive with energy storage attached.

The Tesla Gigafactory will be powered by a lot of wind and solar power.    Tesla recharging stations around the country will need electricity -- why shouldn't they be at least partially independent from the existing electrical grid? And Solar City will continue to need solar panels, so there's already an interesting business case here to be made for local solar panel production by Tesla in partnership with another firm.

If you wanted to take a big reach, SpaceX will need solar panels for its spacecraft as it evolves to building a transportation system to Mars and Musk's big vision "hyperloop" transportation scheme includes a boatload of solar to keep everything running and carbon-free.  

At some point in the future, Elon may decided to go big again, producing high power-efficient solar panels for use in spacecraft,  to serve as the keystone to solar "farms"  across the country to feed Tesla recharging stations and high-density roof power for office buildings and factories.  More efficient solar panels could be rolled into existing SolarCity customers as older panels age out, providing more power per square foot to be either used, stored, or resold. 

It's a long term game.  But if played correctly, Musk would have the potential to impact the solar panel industry by providing an upscale alternative to the glut of first-generation silicon-based panels pumped out around the globe. 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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