Sunday, December 14, 2014

Elon Musk takes on carbon with solar, battery bets

NEW YORK - The energy world is not keeping up with Elon Musk, so he's trying to take matters into his own hands.

Musk, chairman of the solar installer SolarCity, announced Tuesday that the company would acquire Silevo, a maker of solar panels, and build factories "an order of magnitude" bigger than those that currently churn out the panels.

"If we don't do this, we felt there was a risk of not being able to have the solar panels we need to expand the business in the long term," Musk said Tuesday in a conference call.

Musk is also a founder and the CEO of Tesla Motors, which is planning what it calls a "giga-factory" to supply batteries for its electric vehicles.

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  • In both cases, Musk's goal is to make sure the components critical to his vision of the future - electric cars and solar energy - are available and cheap enough to beat fossil fuels.

    Musk's future customers could ignore traditional-energy companies. They would have SolarCity panels on their roof that would generate enough power to also charge a Tesla in the garage. A Tesla battery could then power the home at night with stored solar power.

    It's a far-off vision - solar power is still much more expensive than conventional power, even before the enormous cost of a battery backup. And electric cars are just a fraction of the total auto market. But Musk has made a career of thinking far into the future. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, the rocket company with an ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

    SolarCity, based in San Mateo, Calif., is one of the nation's largest installers of rooftop solar systems. It was founded and is now run by Musk's cousins, CEO Lyndon Rive and chief technology officer Peter Rive. The company also offers financing for solar systems, and last year, it bought a manufacturer of mounting systems used to hold panels in place.

    The acquisition of Silevo is a risk for Musk and SolarCity because it gets the company into panel manufacturing at a time when a global glut of panels has decimated the profit of panel-makers. Some, including one-time industry leader Suntech Power, were forced into bankruptcy. Others were forced into solar development and installations, the kinds of things SolarCity already excels at.

    Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    SolarCity says it won't try to turn out more of the garden-variety panels now clogging the market. Instead, it wants to make panels that are more efficient, and to make them at a low price in huge factories in order to reduce the overall cost of solar electricity. Silevo's relatively complex panels generate more power per square foot than typical panels.

    SolarCity said it was negotiating with New York state to build, in the next two years, what would be among the biggest factories in the world. It would manufacture enough panels each year to produce one gigawatt of peak power - roughly enough panels to outfit 200,000 homes with a typical rooftop system.

    Jonathan Fahey Associated Press
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