Tesla & The New Economics Of The Coming Renewable Energy Boom

I don’t need to tell anyone of the importance of Tesla’s expansion into home battery technology. A home battery lets you store solar energy to use when the sun isn’t shining, which is a really, really major thing in terms of power distribution. As I’ve been pointing out for years, this is the crucial missing link between photovoltaic cells being a rapidly, rapidly cheapening technology with a lot of rollout potential, and photovoltaic cells being the major source for the world’s power. As I predicted in The Week in 2013:

The promising trends in technology and cost suggest much more than renewable energy becoming the fastest growing energy source in the next 30 years. They suggest that renewables will grow to be the number one energy source in the United States and the world in the next 30 or 40 years.

I’d say that that was actually an overly conservative projection. I now foresee solar to be number one in the next twenty, if not the next ten years.

It’s nice to live in the knowledge that renewable energy will overcome problems posed by diminishing oil reserves and (at least) mitigate anthropogenic climate change. It’s nice to know that as solar efficiencies continue to increase and solar manufacturing costs continue to fall that the long term trend for energy costs is down.

And you can do a heck of a lot of cool things with cheap, decentralized energy, like heating and lighting your home, manufacturing goods and technology and food and tools, and powering computers and artificial intelligence.

This, in my view, is the furnace to power the next fifty or a hundred years of soaring mid-20th century style economic growth. This is the beginning of an energy-driven economic supercycle — which takes us from the era of handheld computing to the era of building asteroid mining space stations and extraterrestrial colonies and maybe even interstellar spacecraft. It’s the main reason why I switched from bearish to bullish in 2013.

But what I really want to know is how to make money out of this trend. If photovoltaic cells and batteries are the new crude oil, coal, gasoline and natural gas (etc), does that mean Musk’s firms (Tesla, SolarCity, SpaceX, etc) are going to be the next Exxon-Mobil or Shell or Gazprom?

Maybe. But I’d tend to see renewable energy and emerging tech index funds as a slightly smarter bet. The trouble is that we’re at a very early stage in the supercycle.

An imperfect analogy: Xerox made an operating system akin to Windows years before Microsoft and Apple did, but Microsoft and Apple were the ones who reaped the bigger rewards. There are a whole load of factors that could dramatically affect which renewable energy systems are the ones that dominate the market: interface, battery-photovoltaic cell integration, price per unit of energy, price per unit of storage, durability and probably some others. And also a slew of more superficial factors such as marketing. If this is going to be as big as I think it is there will be a lot of competition from outside the renewables sector not least from firms like Google, and Apple and Facebook and Samsung as well as from older energy giants like BP, Shell and Exxon-Mobil.

For now, of course, Musk does seem to be establishing himself as the market leader and trendsetter in much the way Steve Jobs once did. But that could all change. It’s even not just a matter of competing firms. Just as the internet decentralized information distribution, and solar is on the cusp of decentralizing energy production, the whole manufacturing and (I’d argue) product design paradigm is edging closer to being transformed by another set of emergent technologies: 3-D printers and home manufacturing. Maybe as home manufacturing begins to become more prominent, open-source collaborative product and component design will beat out the current proprietary model.

The main takeaway here seems to be that this is an incredibly exciting time to be alive. We’re all set to get a lot richer from this, whether or not we bought Tesla at an early stage, just as people in the early 20th century didn’t have to buy Standard Oil shares to do well from that other energy revolution.

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On the Race to Mars and the Economics of Colonizing Space

It is at least a little exciting to see that NASA wants to put a human on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2030.

Why not very exciting? Because NASA — unlike with the Moon — is not on track to be the first one there. Yes, governments — the largest of which are capable of borrowing, spending and taxing trillions — still have the most economic power of any agency at their disposal. Yet if their plans for space exploration are anything to go by, they no longer have anything like the most ambition.

Elon Musk, by contrast, plans to be on Mars by 2020, and establish a colony he wants to grow to a million humans by 2100. Mars One plans to establish a colony by 2024. Overambitious? Nobody really knows. Sending flesh-and-bone humans to Mars is a pioneering act, not just on par with but considerably more ambitious than the pioneering explorations of Magellan and Columbus. Scurvy, foreign diseases, unpredictable weather at sea and geomagnetic anomalies are one thing. But nobody knows how the human body will respond to multi-year space travel trips across the vast void of space that separates Earth and Mars, nor to life in a metal box on the Martian surface.

Of course, if the private colonists fail — as many are expecting them to do — it is nice to know that the U.S. government will try and get the job done instead. After all, as Stephen Hawking has argued, space colonization is absolutely central to humanity’s future. In our current state as a one-planet species, one stray asteroid, one nearby gamma ray burst, one large scale industrial accident, one explosive supervolcano, or one stray genetic mutation — not to mention climate change, and all the cataclysmic risks we don’t know about — could send us to the edge of extinction. As a two-planet or ten-planet or two-solar system species those risks progressively diminish further.

Simply, we face a choice as a species. Turn inward and remain an earthbound species and face inevitable extinction in the next few thousand years, or possibly even the next few hundred years. Or turn upward, colonize other worlds and human beings — like us, and descended from us — have a chance of still being around one million or even one billion years from now.

Of course, the ultimate viability of all this really comes down to economics. If Musk, Bezos, Branson and the other stargazing private space interests can make space technology profitable, they can fund their way (and our way) to the stars. If not, then humanity’s hopes of colonizing space are tied up with the inward-looking, climate change-denying, and stupefied reality of scientifically and economically illiterate politicians who care more about their 19th century ideologies, election campaigns, and parliamentary champagne than the state of humanity 10 or 1,000 generations from now.

In theory, the resources floating up in space may be the economic fuel necessary to take us to the stars. As I noted last year: “An asteroid less than a mile in diameter could hold more than $20 trillion in industrial and precious metals” at 1997 prices. And that’s in addition to the massive potential of tapping into the sun’s rays as a self-perpetuating energy source. And while abundance may bring down the price of such commodities (including energy) early asteroid miners may reap massive enough rewards to turn themselves into the next Google, Apple, or Facebook, capable of pumping billions or trillions of dollars into research into further technologies.

As I argued last year, those who believe that the global economy may be entering an era of so-called “secular stagnation” clearly have either not thought very much about the potential economic growth possible from growing into space, or they think it a very unlikely possibility. Do you know how much one interstellar spacecraft or large-scale space station could add to GDP? Not just in its construction, but in the huge amount of research and development needed to develop and deploy such a thing? This is a whole new economy.

And while robots may mean that this spending does not create many jobs, and while off-planet tax havens are likely to become a thing, at the very least the technologies will trickle down to the wider public. Already, the widespread availability of the internet is creating a widely accessible and levelled playing field in the dissemination of information, news and ideas. Distributed solar energy and 3-D printers have the potential to create similar effects in energy markets, and in manufacturing and lift billions out of poverty.

But none of this is guaranteed. Even with the recent upsurge in interest in private space industry from titans of industry like Musk and Bezos, uncleared technical hurdles may stymie the development of large scale space industry for decades to come. NASA may still beat the privateers to Mars. But NASA is no longer the tip of the spear. Hopefully, NASA’s exploits will begin to look like afterthoughts.