If you want a glimpse of what the nascent new energy economy looks like, pull off Interstate 5 in Southern California just before the steep climb through the Tejon Pass. There amid a cluster of fast-food joints you’ll find three Tesla Motors Superchargers sitting under a canopy of solar panels.
The 480-volt Superchargers, which resemble white mini versions of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” add 150 miles of range to the Tesla’s Model S luxury electric sports sedan in 30 minutes. With six Supercharger stations in operation in California, Model S drivers can make a carbon-free dash down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles — or to Lake Tahoe or Las Vegas — without those nervous glances at the car’s battery range indicator. And the cost? Not a penny if you’re a Model S owner.
The solar panels installed by SolarCity juice up the Supercharger. Sunshine is free, after all, and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk told me that the panels will pay for themselves within a few years. (Musk is chairman of SolarCity, the Silicon Valley-based residential solar installer founded by his cousins, Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive.) Better yet, Musk expects to make money off the Supercharger stations by selling the excess electricity the solar panels generate to utilities.
“We can offer free long distance forever to customers,” said Musk, noting that for $25 million Tesla can install enough Superchargers to allow Model S owners to drive coast-to-coast without opening their wallets.
If the symbiotic relationship between the Big Three Detroit automakers and Big Oil defined the Age of Petroleum in 20th century America — and spawned many of our environmental problems — electrics cars and renewable energy are the paradigm for the 21st.
It is, of course, the very early days. For all the well deserved hype the Model S has garnered — winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award in 2012 and accolades from Consumer Reports as the best car the magazine has ever tested — it is still the only vehicle Tesla sells. With sales of 30,000 cars expected this year, the Model S remains a niche vehicle, as do battery-powered offerings from Nissan, Ford and General Motors.
Still, the Model S in the first quarter of this year outsold by wide margins the Mercedes S Class, the BWM 7 Series and the Audi A8 in the U.S. And even with only one car in its showroom, the decade-old Tesla on Thursday had a market cap of $10.7 billion. To put that in perspective, century-old General Motors’ market cap was $45 billion.
The solar boom, meanwhile, continues unabated. In 2003, the United States had a photovoltaic generating capacity of 83 megawatts. Today, 7,266 megawatts are online, enough to power 5.5 million American homes.
If you install solar panels on you home, electric cars become more attractive as you can fuel them from sunshine and maximize your return on investment. The converse proves true as well — buy an electric car and suddenly going solar starts to look like a good deal.
No surprise then that Tesla and SolarCity have teamed up to offer homeowners integrated solar arrays and electric car charging stations. The two companies also scored funding from the California Energy Commission for a pilot project that installed Tesla battery packs in homes to store electricity generated by rooftop solar arrays.
Such a system could not only provide backup electricity to homeowners in the event of a power outage but could return electricity to the grid to help utilities balance supply and demand. As wind and solar energy become a greater part of the power mix in states like California, energy storage has become increasingly crucial.
Electric cars themselves may become part of the electricity network in the coming years. Utilities are interested in tapping the electricity stored in the batteries to help balance the grid and avoid firing up fossil-fueled power plants to bridge gaps in demand and supply. In April, the University of Delaware began a pilot project that sends electricity stored in the batteries of 15 electric Mini Coopers to the grid when they receive a signal over the Internet.
The idea is that utilities would pay car owners for the electricity, another incentive to go electric and go solar.
As Musk says, “People understand and remember ‘free.’ ”