In business as well as in the world at large, a few people tend to step up to oversee and catalyse major changes at pivotal moments in time. In the past, those have been government leaders, scientists, businesspeople, and inventors from all over the world. In finally bringing about the world’s conversion to clean energy and the decline of the oil industry, change is coming quickly, and the person bringing it is Elon Musk.
Even though renewables have been ripe for investment and implementation for years, we’ve largely remained stuck on oil as our primary energy source due to a lack of investment, alogn with interference by oil companies. Musk made a fortune founding PayPal, but instead of retiring on a private island, he quickly moved on to offering the cashflow solutions that renewables innovation needed to gain a foothold. While many of his ventures might look like exciting passion projects at first glance, a closer look reveals that he isn’t just developing a few isolated futuristic-sounding projects; he’s systematically taking on the oil industry’s global grip on energy.
Making electric vehicles viable
Perhaps Musk’s most famous venture along with SpaceX is the new car manufacturer Tesla Motors. Unlike previous, relatively anemic electric cars, the vehicles rolling off the assembly line at Tesla easily outperform comparable traditional cars. This didn’t just prove that electric could replace the combustion engine, it also lent electric cars the prestige needed to reform their previously poor image.
Of course, to really be taken seriously, electric cars needed to address one more major hurdle that gas-powered cars are incumbent and virtually unbeatable in: re-fueling.
Building electric energy infrastructure for transport
The beauty of burning fuel in your vehicle is that when you run out of energy, you can simply add fuel and continue on your way. We already have gas stations dotted along every road all over the world, so travelling great distances without being stranded is no problem. Early electric vehicles had few effective options for refueling.
To address this Elon Musk has gone on a nationwide construction spree in the United States. There are now 705 Supercharger stations in North America, which can charge a vehicle with 170 miles of range in 30 minutes, up to the maximum 300 miles in less than an hour. That makes charging fast enough to do while you grab a bite to eat, and charging stations plentiful enough to see you across the United States without the risk of running out of juice. Tesla is already signing agreements in other countries and soon these “re-fueling” stations will be everywhere.
Unfortunately, to challenge big oil, it’s important to think about where the energy that’s used to charge these new vehicles comes from.
Taking solar to a new level
Electric vehicles have been criticised for decades for only making the issue of fossil fuels less visible instead of actually solving it. The electricity used to charge an electric car would most likely come from coal, oil, or nuclear power plants, which wouldn’t solve anything. Moreover, just revolutionising transport energy would only address a small portion of our total energy consumption.
Musk is looking to tackle this issue as well. He is SolarCity’s biggest investor, and is working to scale up solar energy worldwide to bring costs ever lower. Additionally, another stated goal is to decentralise the power grid. This isn’t just to support his personal libertarian philosophies, it’s also to eliminate the vast amount of electricity that is wasted in transporting power to every home from distant power plants (usually between 8-15%). The big barrier to making this a reality is reliability; the sun isn’t always shining, but Musk, as always, is a few steps ahead.
Addressing energy storage issues
In 2015, Musk announced the Powerwall. It’s a new kind of battery meant to affordably store and put out enough power to run your entire home while charging your electric car. Better modular energy storage is an essential part of a robust solar energy grid. A system where every home is a mini power plant is very difficult to break, especially if they’re also hooked into the grid. The grid can take on excess power to charge batteries in other places that are having a low-power day.
Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that everyone will be willing or able to invest to outfit their homes with this new energy infrastructure right away. However, it’s promising to be cost effective enough to make it a reasonable choice for new construction as well as for forward thinking people who are willing to wait a few years to earn their money back in energy savings. Additionally, this popularisation of solar frees other, less residential-friendly energy sources, such as wind and hydro power, to begin to address industrial energy needs.
Taken to its extreme potential, Musk’s audacious push for progress could all but eliminate the roughly 70% of the world’s oil consumption that is dedicated to gasoline and diesel fuel. How long that will take is anybody’s guess, but it’s clear that it’ll be the end of the road for big oil’s energy oligarchy.