Tesla, Solar Energy, and the Next Wave of Innovation in the 21st Century

By Kevin Bhimani

Since the start of the 20th century, the world has undergone a period of rapid technological change. Ranging from the likes of Apple’s iPhone, the Internet, antibiotics, and more—there has be a marked upward trend in pioneering new technology. This trend also translates to the clean-technology energy sector in which now more than ever we are seeing a large shift in producer mentality to innovate for the purpose of bettering our planet’s health. When talking about this, it is important to note what is considered clean energy and what is not. As defined by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, clean energy is: “electricity generated at a facility placed in service after 1991 using renewable energy (solar, wind, ocean, current, wave, tidal, or geothermal), qualified renewable biomass, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power, or qualified waste-to-energy” (U.S. Senate). The rapid climate change that we are experiencing is growing exponentially, with private companies and countries alike attempting to combat it with investment in various ways. This paper will focus on an overview of clean technology innovation within the realm of electric vehicles and solar power in their past, present, and future states along with a look at some of the malicious practices that occur today in anti-climate change lobbying.

Part I: The History of Clean Energy

Clean energy technology has a long history—tracing back to 2000 BC when the Chinese first used coal as an energy source (ProCon). The notion of ‘clean energy’ in this case is relative as practices that were once considered the peak of innovation in the field, i.e. coal in this case, are now considered detrimental to the environment. Next came harnessing water energy by using power mills in 200 BC, which the Romans employed to increase productivity and “decrease dependence on human and animal muscle power” (ProCon). In the 1590s the world was introduced to wind mills as the Dutch used them for a multitude of reasons including grinding grain/spices and sawing wood. The next major jump comes in 1860 as the first solar power system was developed in France to produce steam to power machinery.

Engraving of Augustine Mouchot’s Solar Power Collector at the Universal Exposition in Paris, 1878. Source: Humboldt

In 1882, the world saw the first commercial scale hydroelectric plant open in Appleton, Wisconsin in which the groundbreaking output it had at the time was about 12.5 KW, or roughly enough power to light 250 sixteen-candlepower lamps (ProCon). The first geothermal power plant was built in 1921 in California, as “The Geysers” which are just a little north of San Francisco were used to harness the geothermal steam that was long before unable to be tapped because of the lack of material quality when interacting with the extreme heat (ProCon). And lastly, in 1951, the first nuclear power reactor used to generate electricity was built in Idaho. Though it was barely enough to power a simple string of 4 light bulbs, it along with the other achievements are historic marks in the timeline of clean energy.

Photo of experimental Breeder Reactor-I (EBR-I) lighting four light bulbs to demonstrate the first electricity generation from nuclear energy. Source: anl.gov

These innovative, yet now-primitive inventions in terms of technology have paved the way for the kind of revolutionary advancements in technology that we are seeing in the clean-energy field today. As the evidence of our changing environment becomes more clear, leaders in the field are racing to find solutions to change the way in which we live, work, and operate as a society.

To see why the clean-tech field is growing at such a rapid rate, a look at the underlying problems that our environment is facing today can provide an explanation. NASA has outlined five primary metrics to provide evidence of our changing world:

  1. Increasing CO2 levels:

Source: Reconstruction from ice cores (NOAA)

The notion of the CO2 levels increasing globally is something that has historically been cyclical as the above graph suggests. However, starting with the industrial revolution there has been an exponential increase in the amount of CO2 that has been emitted into the atmosphere. Increased carbon emitting activities such as car use, manufacturing, and more have led to this spike and it will have dangerous impacts if it continues on this trend.

2. Global temperature hikes:

Source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)

Directly correlated with the aforementioned carbon emission increase, global temperatures have risen at astronomical rates in the past few decades. Between the period of 1880 to 2020, we will see on average across all land and water surfaces in the world, an increase in temperature by 0.85 degrees Celsius. If continued at this rate, this can have catastrophic consequences to ecosystems around the globe as such a drastic shift in climate will leave little room for adaptation on the part of organisms.

3. The rising sea level

4. Arctic sea ice retreats

5. Land ice decreases

Additionally, as the temperatures rise, sea levels will increase due to ice melt in the arctic and Antarctic regions. Fisher Stevens’ 2016 documentary Before the Flood showed us first hand how rapid the ice can melt. In a pivotal scene in the film, Leonardo DiCaprio visits Jason Box, a professor at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. DiCaprio is baffled at the notion a plastic hose laying on top of the ice in Greenland was at one point 30 feet below the surface, submerged in the ice—and yet it was only 5 years back in which that was the case. As the graph above shows, the sea level is rising at a pace of about 20 mm every five years, leaving entire countries such as the Maldives at risk to not exist in the near future due to an impending flood of the island (Astaiza).

The data above has not gone unnoticed. Countries and companies alike have realized this massive change in our environment and have recognized the need to innovate current practices in order to have a sustainable future to live in. Starting with the private sector, there have been a number of companies that have outlined practices in which they hope to cut down on their environmental footprint while still maintaining the profits that they have. One such case is with IBM who has vowed “to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption by 35% from 2005 levels by 2020” (Silverstein). Other companies such as Vestas Wind Systems and ABB Ltd have accumulated market capitalizations of over $15 billion and $48 billion respectively with their sole focus on clean energy with products ranging from solar conversion, wind conversion, motors, and more (Johnston). Overall, 63 of the Fortune 100 companies have outlined goals to reduce emissions and shift to cleaner business practices, and they are providing the blueprint for governments around the world to follow.

A particularly interesting country moving forward in this industry is Sweden. The country has promised to be one of the first on the planet to be 100% fossil fuel free by 2040 (Business Insider Nordic). As early as 2010, it was already producing more energy from biomass than it was from petroleum, giving them an extended track record of being pioneers in this movement (Active Sustainability). The rest of the world can turn to them as an example as they have given a detailed outline for what they are doing now and what they plan to accomplish in the future. One of the key reasons behind their drastically lower carbon emission rate at 4.25 tons compared to an average of 6.91 tons across the rest of the European Union countries and 16.15 tons in the U.S. is their reliance on nuclear and hydroelectric energy. About 83% of Sweden’s electricity production comes from these two sources (Sweden). Additionally, the government invests heavily in the energy information market, for instance, each of the 290 municipalities in Sweden has a personal energy advisor which people can go to for guidance on anything ranging from “replacing windows, to using low-energy lights, and switching to different heating systems” (Sweden). Other countries can learn from each other and continue to grow the sentiment of fostering a better climate for the future.

Part II: The Electric Car

With this background, it is evident why the world is pushing for the type of change that it is today in the clean-tech sector. One of the most intriguing products to emerge in this industry is the electric car. Automobiles are arguably the most lucrative market in the clean-energy industry right now, as it is estimated that over 1.2 billion cars are currently on the road (Voelcker). A side effect of that however, is the negative impact this has—transportation accounts for about 23% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions (Tencer). The number of vehicles on the road is expected to rise to over 2 billion by the year 2035 and scientists estimate that “it will be necessary to cut average carbon emissions by 80% if we wish to stabilize the impact of climate change” with the influx of new drivers (Voelcker). The start of the electric car movement points to Victor Wouk, considered the “Godfather of the Hybrid”, as he built the first full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark provided by General Motors for the 1970 Federal Clean Car Incentive Program (PBS). This, along with the dissemination of data such as that discussed before among intellectuals and then the broader population led to an increase in demand of these unique, new-age vehicles. It has been calculated that the electric car market is growing at a rate “10 times faster than its gasoline equivalent” due to a combination of government regulation and subsidies, relevant charging infrastructure, integration of electric vehicles into product portfolios of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and more (Accenture Consulting, Fragoso). Aside from great parking spots at local malls, there are many perks that come with being an electric vehicle owner.

The estimated carbon footprint (measured in tons of carbon dioxide) over time for driving an electric vehicle is calculated to be almost nothing outside of the upfront manufacturing and equipment footprint. Additionally, “EV drivers pay $1.22 to drive the same distance a conventional car could go on a gallon of gasoline” (U.S. Department of Energy). While gas prices today are relatively low, it was not long ago that gas prices were exceeding $4/gallon nationally. This is coupled with the politics of OPEC and the drilling practices and constraints that are put on member countries, along with U.S. shale drillers increase in production collectively leave the oil industry to be extremely volatile. With these factors in mind, it is clear how consumer demand for this particular innovation has spiked recently. In a survey conducted on Duke’s Campus with a roughly equivalent distribution of male and female participants (52 males and 48 females), it was concluded that 82% of people would purchase an electric car over a traditional gas-powered one if the electric car was priced at $30,000 compared to a $25,000 price tag on the gas-powered car. This number drops however to about 23% percent when the EV price is at $60,000 compared to a $55,000 price tag on the gas-powered even with cost savings from gas expenditures in mind.

This provides some insight on consumer preferences and price sensitivity when it comes to this field, something that cannot be mentioned without a particular industry leader.

Tesla Motors is seeking to fundamentally change the way in which the car industry is approached today. In a little over a decade, it has become the most valuable car company in the world with a market capitalization of $51.4 billion, surpassing Ford Motor Company’s MCAP of $45.6 billion and GM’s of $51.2 billion on April 10th of 2017.

Performance of Tesla’s stock price vs. Ford’s from Nov. 2016 to Present. Source: Reuters/NYT

Being able to surpass industry giants such as Ford and GM gives insight on the scope of the potential that Tesla has. Most of this potential comes from the brilliant mind of Elon Musk, the company’s CEO. Though his lofty goal of reaching a trillion-dollar evaluation might be a distant dream, the potential for Tesla to cement itself among a centuries-old car industry is apparent (Lambert). Musk began his billionaire path when founding the online city guide company, Zip2, in 1995 with his brother. He then sold the company and used the funds to acquire online financial services firm PayPal to which he then flipped once again and made hundreds of millions (Dodds). Leveraging the newfound capital, Musk finally was able to invest in Tesla Motors Inc. in 2003. His influence on the company and the transportation industry as a whole comes in the form of his vision for the future of travel in our world. He wants to see a mass shift in consumer demand for electric vehicles so that our reliance on oil and non-renewable resources can be phased out sooner rather than later.

The plan that was outlined for this is facetiously dubbed the “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan” as it has been posted on their website for over a decade now. The essential break down is to make a high-end, all-electric sports car (Tesla Roadster), use that money to fund building a less expensive four-door sedan (Tesla Model S), and then ultimately use that money to build an even more affordable car (Tesla Model 3) (Musk). This shows the intuition in the field to match changing consumer preferences and demand with practical ability to have mass market appeal. By conducting a phased plan, Musk and the Tesla team have a clear vision for how they would like the world to look in the near future. By creating a product that has a price point on par with other gas-powered vehicles in the industry, Tesla wants every consumer to purchase electric vehicles over traditional gas-powered ones, as the final piece to the equation was a cost reduction. There is currently vast competition in the sub-sect of electric vehicles, but the overarching goal of reducing carbon emissions is something that all of these companies can get behind.

For instance, Ford is aggressively trying to introduce its new fleet of global electric vehicles, with the goal of having 7 of the new 13 in the fleet hitting the market within the next five years (Dolan). General Motors EV product line is spearheaded by Chevrolet’s Volt, which was the second highest selling electric vehicle in the U.S. market last year only behind Tesla’s Model S (Trefis Team). They additionally plan to launch 10 electric cars in China by 2020, as there is increasing “government pressure on the industry to promote alternatives to gasoline” (Trefis Team). Faraday Future is an intriguing competitor, as they, like Tesla, are a product of Silicon Valley’s incubation for startups. The company is essentially seeking to tie the intersection between supreme luxury of cars which is currently an extensive market (see: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, etc.) with the notion of fully-electric transportation. In a prototype build, Faraday Future’s car outperformed Tesla’s flagship P100D in a speed test, along with featuring a number of additional technology that has never before been introduced such as “facial recognition driving software, driverless valet system, and more” (Gabbatt, Heisler).

Toyota arguably has the biggest chance at disturbing the status-quo of the automobile industry as a whole in that they have a self-imposed challenge to “reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by 90% in comparison with 2010 levels, by 2050” (Toyota). They have outlined an even larger scale six-part challenge for their goal of having a “net positive impact rather than just trying to reduce negative factors to zero” (Toyota). The underlying sentiment behind not only Toyota, but all of these automotive brands is the idea that Tesla has sparked the once very complacent automobile industry to change, and change quickly. It is a race now as to who can innovate the fastest and provide the best all-electric product, and the potential for growth will stem from the investment companies put into the industry and relative adoption of the new technology on the part of consumers.

Diagram of the Toyota’s Six Part Environmental Challenge. Source: Toyota Global

Part III: Solar Energy

By traveling 150 million kilometers to the Earth in about 8 minutes comes the second part of the new wave of innovation that we are seeing in the clean-tech field: solar energy. As mentioned briefly earlier, the idea of harvesting the sun for power is not a new concept, it has simply evolved over time. In the onset, solar energy was used for harvesting food and powering machinery at a small scale, and now as technology has become more efficient, solar energy has shifted to power entire homes, parts of cities, and even parts of entire countries. If simply evaluating the most renewable resources that we have at our disposal, “solar energy is the largest energy resource on Earth—and it is inexhaustible” (Shaw). The amount of solar energy that the Earth receives in one year is more than the “total amount of energy that has been garnered from oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear sources in the history of humankind” (Shaw). It is something that is incredibly versatile, relatively low-maintenance, and outside of the upfront investment, a form of energy that can pay for itself in the long-term.

Solar energy is already being used throughout the world in various commercial and governmental aspects, yet for this non-polluting power source to really reach its potential there needs to be a marked effort on the part of countries to expedite its adoption. One interesting statistic in this is that the new investment in clean energy fell to $287.6 billion in 2016 which is 18% lower than the record $348.5 billion invested in 2015 (Bloomberg New Energy Finance).

This does not directly correlate to lower overall emphasis in the field, as prices of clean energy, particularly with solar and wind energy, have rapidly decreased over the years as shown below.

However, as countries like China, who have seen unparalleled growth in the solar energy department in recent years start to slow down their production and investment in solar energy, the overall dynamic of the clean energy investment is thrown off. China has been at the pinnacle recently in terms of solar energy adoption, they have even beat their projected 2020 goals of meeting 27% electricity output through renewable energy, by last year (Taylor). Yet, when taking into consideration that most of this massive growth in the solar department for the country was due to over manufacturing of equipment originally meant to be exported to the U.S. and Western Europe, the same sentiment does not stand. Instead of simply discarding of the excess equipment, using it for China’s own grid seemed to be the more resourceful use, and this kind of rapid growth is unlikely to be sustainable in the future (Taylor).

Yet, as the graph above shows, China and Japan are still leading the way in clean energy investment. It does not bode well for the future of clean energy if the majority of the investment that is occurring is a result of a balance sheet mistake. Countries need to take notice of each other’s efforts and ensure that there is constant growth in clean energy implementation. Taking a complacent stance on the issue will lead to no tangible positive affects taking place for our environment, and consequentially there is collective harmful effects.

An innovation that can arguably be the most effective and revolutionary seeks to marry the two ideas detailed above of transportation and solar power. This new invention to the clean-tech field is solar roads, which seek to take existing roads and install enormous lengths of solar panels on top of them, uniquely outfitted with heating elements to melt snow and ice, LEDs for signs, and of course solar radiation capturing technology to convert into energy for varied use (Koch). However, there are a number of drawbacks to the still-futuristic product. The primary reason being the inherently steep cost of the specified panels. The first ever solar road that opened in the world was in Normandy, France in 2016. This one kilometer stretch consisting of 2,800 square meters of photovoltaic cells cost roughly $5.2 million dollars, equaling about $416 per square foot—far more than the estimated $1-5 dollars per square foot of asphalt paved roads (Anthony). Having this significant increase in the cost of roads is a serious inhibition to the widespread adoption of this as governments around the world simply do not have the budget to fund it.

There is also a major safety concern with solar roads as the U.S Department of Transportation is currently working closely with Scott and Julie Brusaw, founders of Solar Roadways, in order to test the panels and ensure that they are safe for widespread use. As the DOT’s Eric Weaver explains, “driving or walking on a textured glass surface is completely different than asphalt, which is specifically designed to increase traction” (Lacey). There have been a number of university lab tests that have shown that the solar road panels can stop a vehicle going 80 miles per hour within the required distance, yet this standard is still different when compared to the strict federal protocol needed to put this on mainstream roads such as major interstates and highways (Lacey).

If the above two roadblocks can be resolved, the implications in terms of the potential energy produced cannot be overlooked. It is estimated that if the solar road panels “used in lieu of existing U.S. roads and walkways, could produce more than three times the electricity used in the United States” (Koch). This would essentially eliminate our need for fossil fuels or bring our reliance on them to seemingly insignificant levels. Obviously, with the cost barrier in mind, there would need to be a momentous change in the funds that the government has at their disposal—i.e. taxes would have to be increased significantly. The current progressive tax system would need proportional hikes across the board for even a small percentage of the roads and walkways in the U.S. to be outfitted with solar road panels.

 

By looking at the graph above, the average tax rate across all income brackets is 21%. A survey conducted of 100 Duke students showed that if proposed with a 2% proportional increase in their taxes for the purpose of solar roads, only 12% would be in favor. Even with in-depth explanation and statistical support, it is difficult to garner interest for something that has seemingly no mass application at the moment. A shift in mindset is necessary to think in a more progressive manner as that is the only way in which projects such as solar roads which have huge upside in long-term cost savings and environmental sustainability can come to fruition.

Part IV: Front Groups and Lobbying

If the aforementioned costs and consumer preferences were not enough of a barrier to clean energy efforts, lobbying against new era clean-tech by age-old companies that have archaic business practices using their fortune of money to combat innovators in the industry is unequivocally the largest concern. The basic breakdown of how this lobbying occurs is demonstrated in the diagram below.

Source: Energy and Policy Institute

The immensely wealthy fossil fuel and utility companies funnel money into smaller front organizations which claim to be providing a service to people on the grounds of “responsible energy activities” or halt renewable energy practices in states until “committees are created to study their impacts” (Elsner and Kasper). Oil giants spend about $114 million a year on opposing climate change policy and that is just in one division of the fossil-fuel industry (Williams).

Major fossil fuel companies spend nearly $115 million each year on obstructive climate advocacy. Source: Influence Map

These along with a number of other oil and utility companies are spending hundreds of millions a year for the sake of their own greed. Creating widespread sentiment that climate change does not exist hurts the efforts of electric car companies, solar/wind and other clean energy companies, and entire countries efforts as a whole as they are stifling the potential change that we could be seeing on a global level. The diagram below shows examples of key conglomerates in the fossil-fuel/utility industry that are funneling money to front organizations for the goal of reducing competitors’ market share in clean energy and increasing their own foothold on the market with the old-era forms of energy supply.

Special Interest Funding in 2015 across key fossil fuel and utility companies in the U.S. Source: Energy and Policy Institute

By taking a look at a specific instance of this malicious practice, one can realize the effectiveness and scale of this widespread issue at the intersection of politics and private business. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is a national front group founded by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries. The lack of transparency amongst these groups runs deep, with AFP even being classified by the IRS as 501© (4), meaning that they do not have to disclose their list of donors (Elsner and Kasper). AFP uses the hundreds of millions of dollars that is “donated” from Koch and other similar organizations to distort climate change science and the economics behind it in an attempt to “halt the encroachment of the government” (Elsner and Kasper). The group as recently as 2016 launched an attack on solar energy in Florida after the pro-solar energy group ‘Floridians for Solar Choice’ were pushing a bill that would allow voters participating in the 2016 election to vote on “whether or not property owners who generate solar electricity can sell the power directly to others up to 2 megawatts” (Elsner and Kasper). Three months following the introduction of this bill, the Florida division of AFP started to circulate emails across the state, phone-banked to get voters to call their representatives, and hired people to go door-to-door to oppose the initiative. It was successful as the bill was never passed, and that goes to show the power that these front groups have with the backing of such large anti-climate change corporations (Elsner and Kasper).

Furthermore, Exelon and Pepco were recently approved to merge, bringing together Exelon’s three electric and gas utilities (BGE, ComED, and PECO) with Pepco Holdings’ three electric and gas utilities (Atlantic Electric, Delmarva Power and Pepco) to create the leading mid-Atlantic electric and gas utility company (Pepco Holdings). This merger was opposed from the start by climate change and renewable energy advocates as it would allow the companies to expand their endeavors in anti-renewables by charging customers who install distributed rooftop solar panels and surcharge most electric bills throughout its operating states (Elsner). Moreover, it would allow them to propose legislation such as the bill in Illinois, the Low Carbon Portfolio Standard (LCPS), that would “subsidize nuclear plants that are struggling to compete with the cheap cost of electricity from wind turbines” (Elsner). This would increase rates for taxpayers, and give an estimated $300 million in additional revenue per year from low carbon credits to Exelon’s existing nuclear plants (Elsner). It leaves the questions as to why this is at all needed, if the wind turbines are providing consumers with cheaper energy. There does not need to be competition in the field as only the best clean energy business should be able to prevail on the open market, yet once again big money changes the entire dynamic.

Across the newly formed industries across clean-tech, a detailed look at electric cars, solar panels, and solar roads demonstrates how there has been unbelievable advancements so far, yet there is still a lot of potential for expansion in the future. On its own, it is a big enough challenge to grow the industry and push for widespread adoption of these clean energy practices, yet with the added hindrance by organizations spreading anti-climate change rhetoric, it is a challenge that will be even greater moving forward. The necessary shift in mentality needs to come from people as their preferences and beliefs will have the ability to impact institutions and companies alike to change the way in which we as a society thinks about the health of our world and consequentially how we source our energy. It will take peers spreading the knowledge they have on the matter, advocating to their friends that renewable energy is the best way moving forward not only for our planet but for their own financial benefit. It is only then that we will see a chain reaction of shifting ideologies and can be able to see a new wave of change in the 21st Century.

 

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