Elon Musk, Silicon Valley’s poster-boy genius replacement for the late Steve Jobs, rolled out his PowerWall battery last week with Star Wars style fanfare, doing his bit to promote and support the delusional thinking that grips a nation unable to escape the toils of techno-grandiosity. The main delusion: that we can “solve” the problems of techno-industrial society with more and better technology.
The South African born-and-raised Musk is surely better known for founding Tesla Motors, maker of the snazzy all-electric car. The denizens of Silicon Valley are crazy about the Tesla. There is no greater status trinket in Northern California, where the fog of delusion cloaks the road to the future. They believe, as Musk himself often avers, that Tesla cars “don’t burn hydrocarbons.” That statement is absurd, of course, and Musk, who holds a degree in physics from Penn, must blush when he says that. After all, you have to plug it in and charge somewhere from the US electric grid.
Only 6 percent of US electric power comes from “clean” hydro generation. Another 20 percent is nuclear. The rest is coal (48 percent) and natural gas (21 percent) with the remaining sliver coming from “renewables” and oil. (The quote marks on “renewables” are there to remind you that they probably can’t be manufactured without the support of a fossil fuel economy). Anyway, my point is that the bulk of US electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons, and then there is the nuclear part which is glossed over because the techno-geniuses and politicians of America have no idea how they are going to de-commission our aging plants, and no idea how to safely dispose of the spent fuel rod inventory simply lying around in collection pools. This stuff is capable of poisoning the entire planet and we know it.
The PowerWall roll out highlighted the “affordability” of the sleek lithium battery at $3,500 per unit. The average cluck watching Musk’s TED-like performance on the web was supposed to think he could power his home with it. Musk left out a few things. Such as: you need the rooftop solar array to feed the battery. Figure another $25,000 to $40,000 for that, depending on whether they are made in China (poor quality) or Germany, or in the USA (and installation is both laborious and expensive). Also consider that you need a charge controller and inverter to manage the electric flow and convert direct current (DC) from the sun into usable alternating current (AC) for your house — another $3,500. So, the cost of hanging a solar electric system on your house with all its parts is more like fifty grand.
What happens when the solar panels, battery, etc., reach the end of their useful lives, say 25 years or so, when there is no more fossil fuel (or an industry capable of providing it economically). How will you fabricate the replacement parts? By then the techno-wizards will have supposedly “come up with” a magic energy rescue remedy. Stand by on that, and consider the possibility that you will be disappointed with how it works out.
What gets me about Tesla’s various products and activities is that, when all is said and done, they are meant to extend the fatal rackets of contemporary life, especially car dependency and the suburban development pattern. Car dependency can and probably will fail on the financial basis, not on the question of how you run the car. The main economic problem we face is the end of growth of the kind we’re used to, the kind that generates real capital and enables bank lending. It is already happening and has led to fewer loans for fewer qualified borrowers. It will also lead to the end of government’s ability to pay for fixing the elaborate hierarchy of paved highways, roads, and streets that the cars have to run on. Imagine the psychic pain of the Silicon Valley billionaire driving his $87,000 Tesla P85D down a freeway that the State of California hasn’t been able to repair in five years.