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By CHRISTOPHER MIMS
Elon Musk and his cousin, Lyndon Rive, have always been close. Their mothers are twins, and Messrs. Musk and Rive grew up together.
“We’ve known each other for as long as we’ve been conscious,” said Mr. Musk, speaking at a panel this week at a private conference in New York.
There is an obvious, almost brotherly affection between the two men. Mr. Musk says Mr. Rive “is an awesome guy and really hardworking and driven, and you can trust him with anything.” And when Mr. Rive recounts the drive to Burning Man in 2004 when Mr. Musk told him his next venture should be in solar power, Mr. Rive says that when Mr. Musk tells you what area to get into next, you get into it.
Their closeness continues, and if Messrs. Musk and Rive can achieve their shared vision, the result will be a transformation of the world’s, or at least America’s, energy infrastructure.
The companies the two men run—Tesla Motors Inc. and solar energy system provider SolarCity Corp.—are uniquely compatible. It isn’t just a product of the affiliation of their founders, but is also a consequence of Mr. Musk sitting on the board of SolarCity and being its largest individual shareholder.
Tesla makes cars, but it also—in the not too distant future—will make batteries. Lots of them. Tesla is building a $5 billion “gigafactory” in Nevada for batteries, one so large that it will, says Mr. Musk, be larger than the whole of earth’s current capacity for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries, most of which currently go into phones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices.
At the conference Wednesday, Mr. Musk disclosed that a portion of the gigafactory’s capacity will be set aside for building “grid-scale storage.”
In other words, Tesla is going to continue its tradition of manufacturing battery packs for SolarCity, only on a much grander scale.
Up to now, SolarCity has sold Tesla-built battery packs to a handful of corporate and residential customers. The rationale is simple: The sun doesn’t always shine, so the best way to manage solar power on-site is to save it up for cloudy days and overnight.
SolarCity’s revenue has been growing 100% a year since its founding in 2006, and Mr. Rive says his goal is to maintain that pace for as long as possible. To that end, SolarCity announced in June the acquisition of Silevo, a Silicon Valley-based maker of solar panels that Mr. Rive insists is capable of producing at scale the most efficient solar panels on the market.
Mr. Musk said that while his gigafactory won’t exclusively sell grid-storage batteries to SolarCity, conversations with the company are “our best feedback as to deciding what the product would look like.”
Mr. Musk went even further, describing “the product” as a bank of batteries that “looks good,” is about 4-inches thick and can be mounted on the wall of the garage in a home.
Thanks to the economies of scale that will come from Tesla’s gigafactory, within 10 years every solar system that SolarCity sells will come with a battery-storage system, says Mr. Rive, and it will still produce energy cheaper than what is available from the local utility company.
Mr. Musk also noted that in any future in which a country switches fully to electric cars, its electricity consumption will roughly double. That could either mean more utilities, and more transmission lines, or a rollout of solar—exactly the sort that SolarCity hopes for.
America’s solar energy generating capacity has grown at around 40% a year, says Mr. Rive. “So if you just do the math, at 40% growth in 10 years time that’s 170 gigawatts a year,” says Mr. Rive. That’s equivalent to the electricity consumption of about 5 million homes, which is still “not that much,” he says, when compared with overall demand for electricity. “It’s almost an infinite market in our lifetimes.”
There are almost innumerable barriers to the realization of Messrs. Musk and Rive’s plan. For Tesla, there is the possibility that a superior battery technology could come to market soon after Tesla and its partner, Panasonic Corp., build their gigafactory, rendering their $5 billion investment obsolete. And SolarCity has almost the exact same problem with its ambition to build its own solar panels. While Mr. Rive says that Silevo’s technology is “next generation” and can compete with the cheap panels that China has been exporting to the rest of the world, the oughts are littered with the carcasses of U.S. solar panel manufacturers who claimed they could do the same, including Solyndra Inc.
And while this is a threat to shareholders rather than his aims, there is also the risk that Mr. Musk will find other, more efficient routes to reaching his stated goals, which include moving the world onto electric transport and solar power generation as quickly as possible.
For example, when asked whether or not the U.S. should erect trade barriers designed to protect American solar-panel manufacturers, Mr. Musk said: “If the Chinese government wants to subsidize the rollout of solar power in America, OK, it is kind of like ‘thank you’ is what we should be saying.” And in a subsequent interview at The Wall Street Journal’s offices in New York, Mr. Musk emphasized that “the reason I created Tesla was to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport. And I made that clear to investors.”
Despite the dumping of solar panels by China representing a substantial threat to SolarCity’s $750 million bet on Silevo—which includes a $350 million acquisition cost and an estimated $400 million to build a solar panel manufacturing plant in Buffalo, N.Y.—Mr. Rive agrees with Mr. Musk that there should be no barriers to trade in solar panels.
“Any extra tax on solar is just bad,” says Mr. Rive. “We have a big problem to solve—let’s solve that problem.”
That “big problem” is climate change. And Mr. Rive has been no less public than Mr. Musk about the purpose of his company being more than turning a profit. It’s one more thing their companies—and the two men—have in common.
—Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter @Mims or write to him at email@example.com.