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Musk Bets What's Good For America Is Good For Tesla


It would help to power 1 million homes in the south reaching as far as North Carolina. Two other projects would help construct a 1,000 turbine wind farm in Wyoming and then distribute that power to California, Arizona, and Nevada via newly constructed ...


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Elon Musk is still advising President Donald Trump on economic issuesHe's taking some heat for that with customers but has chosen to stand his ground, arguing on Twitter: "Activists should be pushing for more moderates to advise (the) president, not fewer." While that point might be debatable, a careful exploration of news over the past two weeks suggests there more be more at stake here than just some general thinking about the economyRenewable energy, at the core of Tesla's electric vehicle and solar businesses, has traditionally garnered little interest with the Republican Party. But with changing quickly in Washington and Musk may believe he can show Trump that what's good for Tesla is good for America. \n \n \n Down with the White House? Elon Musk broke ranks with Silicon Valley counterparts like Uber's Travis Kalanick by choosing to remain on President Trump's economic advisory council(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) \n\nHere's what that story looks likeFirst, consider that electric vehicle sales grew 37% last year in the U.S. to a record 159,139 vehicles. That's no small feat given low gas prices but it's also quite likely just the beginning of a sharp uptrendChevy's Volt had its best year ever in 2016 after a major redesignChevy just recently rolled out the 200-mile-range Bolt and Tesla's own $35,000 Model 3 is set to debut later this year, with hundreds of thousands already on orderBoth vehicles will be made domestically so if they catch on, that's more U.Sjobs and fewer imports -- two priorities of the new administration.\nThough using less gas might not seem important to the White House, there's a second-order effect hereThe House of Representatives is considering a corporate tax overhaul that could raise the price of imports, the border-adjusted taxIf a version of it becomes law, oil from abroad gets more expensive but domestic production -- which is near historic record levels -- doesn'tSo marginal substitution here of electricity for gasoline dampens any pain consumers would feel at the pump while having little effect on U.Soil in the immediate future.\n\nAs for the electricity involved, the story is much bigger than just Musk and Tesla, but it's an important one neverthelessA new report from The Solar Foundation notes that 51,000 new jobs were created in the solar industry last year -- a remarkable 1 in 50 of all the new jobs in 2016Solar industry employment now exceeds 260,000 people making, installing, and servicing solar nationallyThe group expects another 26,000 jobs will be created this year.\nTo get an idea of how big that is, the total has tripled since 2010 and it is also nearly triple the number of people employed by the coal-mining industryWhile the president has talked of relaxing restrictions on mining, read Tim Worstall here at FORBES last year on why there won't be a renaissance in coal employment no matter Trump's policies.\n\nSolar has benefited from rapidly declining costs that have led to an Obama-administration goal being reached years ahead of scheduleIn 2011, Energy Secretary Steven Chu called for achieving a $1/watt cost for solar installations by 2020, but the industry has already gotten thereAnalysts credit the Energy Department for sending a signal but note it was mostly market forces that led to utility-scale solar reaching the price target so quickly (residential systems still cost far more due to lower economies of scale and a higher portion of fixed costs)And before anyone talks of subsidies, it's important to understand two things (1) the current tax credit is 30%, so even without it solar would be below $1.50/watt (2) costs are continuing to decline such that when the credit phases out beginning in 2019 prices will remain below $1.\nAll of that is good news for Tesla, which needs low prices to sell more solar to more customers, but also for consumers who are benefitting from cheaper energyThe investment bank Lazard regularly publishes an update on what the least expensive form of energy is on a "levelized cost" basis, that is taking into account everything from building a plant, maintaining it, and fueling it (if necessary) over its lifetimeThe 10th annual Lazard report shows that renewables are now the cheapest form of power going, even without subsidiesIn some cases, building and running new wind plants is cheaper than just the operating cost of fossil-fuel facilities.\nWhile solar tends to be concentrated in coastal areas that vote blue in presidential elections, wind is mostly clustered in the heartland and has a distinctly red tintThe growth of wind power has been a boon to farmers who can locate turbines on existing farms with minimal loss of agricultural land, making extra profits as a resultAnd the construction and maintenance of those turbines requires domestic, skilled laborThis is another area where Trump priorities and renewable energy priorities alignIt's also just the beginning of wind's potential.","So much wind blows in the nation's vast plains that there is a real opportunity to send that power from where it is generated to where it's needed -- if the power lines to do so could be constructedThose kinds of projects dovetail perfectly with the president's goals around building infrastructure, where he has talked about a $1 trillion planAn early version of that plan, with $150 billion in spending including private investment, contains a massive project to move wind from Oklahoma to MemphisIt would help to power 1 million homes in the south reaching as far as North Carolina.\nTwo other projects would help construct a 1,000 turbine wind farm in Wyoming and then distribute that power to California, Arizona, and Nevada via newly constructed transmission linesThose represent $8 billion in spending together but also show where potential and reality may come into conflictShifting power across hundreds of miles could help make the grid more stableIt could also eventually allow far more renewable power to be used without concern for whether cloud cover in Southern California might lead to everyone's air conditioners being shut downWind and solar make one another more reliable as power sources.\nBut while Wyoming could become a powerhouse of renewable energy, supplying the southwest with wind power to complement solar a bill in the state might soon make it illegal for Wyoming itself to use renewable powerThe giant wind farm discussed above won't be affected because the power is going to leave Wyoming anywayBut as one of the last major coal-mining centers, the state is grasping to preserve an industry that is on its last legsThe state might become a renewables exporter and one of the nation's last coal users.\nWhich brings us back to Musk and TrumpThe new president clearly is searching for some America he perceives we have lost, one he wants to make great again he puts itPart of the nostalgia for coal and indeed old-school manufacturing comes from that searchIf only we could return to the time before the global economy, things would be good in mining and factory towns once again, the theory seems to suggest.\n\nBut Musk's vision has numerous domestic jobs, tooThey just look little like those of the pastTesla's roofers install shingles that happen to generate powerHis factories produce not only cars, but also solar panels and giant batteries to store the sun's energy for use overnight or when it rainsOver time, Musk will need domestic sources of lithium, cobalt, and other metals critical to Tesla's aspirationsLots of miners, just working different mines.\nThat Tesla's businesses, giant wind farms, and massive electrical grids happen to appeal to liberals and environmentalists puts the president in a similar predicament as WyomingDoes he reject these ideas because they're politically expedient to his base constituencies? Or does he seize the opportunity to do something that appeals to opponents while also embracing ideas that have substantial job-creation potential?\n\nWe may get a clue soonThe New York Times just reported that three prominent conservatives, former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz along with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are slated to meet with Vice President Mike Pence and White House officialsThe agenda? To discuss a carbon tax, which would increase the price of fossil fuelsThe idea would be to roll back President Obama's Clean Power Plan and streamline regulations behind the idea of having the thing we're trying to reduce cost more, creating free-market incentives to use less of itPeople would receive a rebate from the proceeds of the tax to offset the higher price of goods, including gasoline, that it would bring about.\nA carbon tax, long beloved by economists, would be a dream for Musk as it would make nearly everything Tesla sells more desirable almost overnightThat isn't to suggest his presence on Trump's council is solely or even primarily about advocating for oneBut when you see how the president's priorities for jobs, infrastructure, domestic manufacturing, and reduced imports all dovetail with Musk's business interests, it makes perfect sense for Musk to remain engaged with Trump and try to exert whatever influence he can.\nWith cabinet confirmation hearings making news these days, it's perhaps worth harkening back to the 1950s when the former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was seeking approval to become Secretary of DefenseAsked about his GM stockholdings and whether he could be objective about his former company, Wilson famously said: "For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." 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