Our opinion: Taking risks versus playing it safe
In an editorial earlier this week, we bemoaned the fact that the uber-wealthy of the world seem to hold the belief that grinding the little people into the dirt is their God-given right by virtue of the fact that they have had bestowed on them untold fortunes.
We should have clarified that our disdain is not for all the uber-wealthy. While many of the rich donate to causes, schools and foundations simply as a means to burnish their own reputations or get their names on a building, others, such as Bill and Melinda Gates and George Soros donate to causes they truly believe will make the world a better place. Still others invest their wealth in forward-looking enterprises without regard for an immediate return.
Case in point: Elon Musk, who, in the same week, pulled all of his patents for his all electric Tesla car, allowing anyone to access them, and announced he was opening a solar panel factory in, of all places, Buffalo, N.Y. Musk, who made his fortune after selling his online payment platform, PayPal, used his profits to develop the Tesla and is now sending cargo to the International Space Station aboard his SpaceX rocket (He also believes SpaceX can put a person on Mars in the next 10 years).
Musk's decision to release his patents was motivated by a desire to see more automakers develop electric cars.
"Fostering an ecosystem around electric vehicles can only help Tesla: The more suppliers there are, the lower its costs could be, and the more widespread the technology, the smaller the incentive for innovators to work on competing technologies like fuel cells," notes Quartz's John McDuling.
Recently, Musk announced he was building a $4.5 billion "gigafactory" in a location yet to be determined to manufacture lithium batteries because no one else in the world can keep up with the demand for such storage devices.
SolarCity, of which Musk is the top shareholder and chairman of the board, was founded in 2006 and has supplied rooftop solar panels to more than 100,000 customers in 15 states. According to Bloomberg, SolarCity hopes to install as much as 1 gigawatt worth of solar panels this year, but has to rely on other companies, mostly in China, for their production.
"The path to ultimately having solar power be way cheaper than coal or fracked-gas power is to combine huge economies of scale with the most advanced technology," Musk told Bloomberg.
It's also worth noting that Musk's factory in Arizona will also build batteries for the storage of electricity produced by the solar panels.
Eventually, SolarCity hopes to install 10 gigawatts of solar panels a year.
"If you look at the current capacity in the world, we're not able to do that right now," said Musk, in a conference call, announcing SolarCity's purchase of Silevo, which manufactures panels and will be operating the factory in Buffalo.
As of last year, the levelized cost of energy for rooftop generation remained about double coal, noted Rob Wile for Business Insider.
"Will the demand be there? The firm's own polling suggests there is," writes Wile. "But if you assume that electricity customers are price agnostic, rooftop solar still has some ways yet to go to become cost competitive with fossil fuels. Musk recognizes this and beating fossil fuels at their own cost game remains his ultimate goal."
While the utility companies have looked warily on solar power and continued to rely on nuclear, coal and natural gas, Wile notes that Barclays recently downgraded the entire U.S. electric utilities sector to "underweight" on the threat posed by widespread adoption of solar-storage.
"These systems allow homeowners to use rooftop solar panels and a battery to cut all but the figurative emergency backup cord to their local electric grid, putting a severe strain on an industry that has been a defacto monopoly."
If the utilities don't figure out how to get into the solar power game, they may become a thing of the past, warn many energy analysts.
In the last seven years, writes Wile, the cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 70 percent, mainly due to European subsidies and capacity overexpansion in China. The next step is for storage prices to fall, as well, he notes.
"Tesla has single-handedly brought down the cost of batteries over the past few years, from about $1,000/kWh in 2009 to $300/kWh in early 2014. If the company's gigafactory successfully ramps up, costs could plummet."
Meanwhile, utility companies are, in some cases successfully, pursuing "solar taxes" in state legislatures around the country, but industry analysts don't see these attempts as anything more than PR disasters for energy utilities.
"With the costs of solar installations falling about 10 percent per year, we expect the pace of installations to recover before the end of 2014," notes Barclays. "This may prove to be an example of how quickly the technological/cost curve can overtake regulatory responses."
So, while Musk is nothing if not the consummate business man, he should be commended for having the foresight to risk everything on what some might consider an ill-thought-out lark. His type of vision is what drove many entrepreneurs to bankruptcy and insanity, but is also the motive force behind the economy that grew the American middle class at exponential rates following World War II.
Taking risks on ethereal, and even dangerous, notions -- from the Pilgrims to Edison to Musk -- is what made this country great. We need more risk takers to keep the American advantage strong and vital, but more importantly, we need more wealthy risk takers who aren't afraid to gamble their fortunes in pursuit of less-than-certain goals.
Unfortunately, today's economy is dominated by hedge fund managers, Wall Street insiders, risk-averse corporations and families with wealth passed down generation to generation. They seek the safest ways to increase their fortunes and are successful at doing so, but at the expense of everyone else. But they are insulated by their wealth from the conditions 90 percent of Americans must live with, so it's only natural that they would seek ways to increase their fortune while putting it at the least amount of risk. This pays off for a small group of people, but leaves the rest of us floundering with the crumbs they drop in their wake.
Fortunately, people such as Elon Musk take a longer vision and are willing to place bets on risky ventures that, granted, could result in enormous rewards for them, but also push innovation forward while offering some hope to the average Joe and Jane that there is some light at the end of this dark economic tunnel.