Tesla CEO Elon Musk Reflects Openly About The Sustainability Journey

When CEO Elon Musk reflects on the last decade, he grounds himself in Tesla company goals that were designed to spur the world’s transition to clean energy. Today, he is practical yet optimistic — he sees a future in which energy production moves from reliance on fossil fuels to pragmatic sustainable energy generation. A pervasive and systematic global shift to renewables is a core vision.

“My expectation is not like that the energy production must be pure as the driven snow, but it also cannot be using the world’s dirtiest coal, which it was for a moment there,” Musk said in his role as panelist at The B Word conference, which was focused on bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. “So, you know, that’s just difficult for Tesla to support in that situation. I do think long-term renewable energy will actually be the cheapest form of energy — it just doesn’t happen overnight.”

Musk explained during the conference panel discussion that energy storage systems, combined with solar and wind, aren’t the only ways to transition bitcoin to cleaner energy. He endorsed drawing upon existing hydropower, geothermal, and nuclear energy sources to reduce the environmental impact of bitcoin mining.

Square Crypto lead commentator Steve Lee asked Musk his advice about what can the energy-intensive bitcoin industry do “to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.” He also interjected, “Could Tesla Energy play a role?”

Musk replied, “Well, I think Tesla can play a role.”

Musk Reflects on the Tesla Journey

Musk’s capacity to excel in tangible innovations, such as batteries, all-electric cars, and rockets, is often in conflict with a risk-averse and heavily-regulated corporate and government environment. Yet he has shown that the US can be a center again for manufacturing at a time when most have moved off seas.

Tesla has installed a number of utility-scale energy storage systems, Musk reminded his bitcoin audience, that have helped utilities with “load-leveling the grid,” including in South Australia and elsewhere. But he noted that battery production was currently constraining production.

In a Twitter exchange with fans after The B Word Conference, Musk wrote that Tesla is still “not quite done” getting to “volume production” of its custom-designed 4680 battery cells.

“In fact, the limiting factor for us right now is cell production,” he noted. “So we need to both internally get our Tesla internal battery cells produced as well as increase supply from suppliers.”

Musk also repeated that, even once Tesla can make its own battery cells, it will still rely on other battery cell makers. Its current cell suppliers include Panasonic, LG, and CATL.

“Generally, when I talk to our suppliers and they say ‘how many cells would you like?’ I say ‘how many cells can you make?’ You know, ’cause sometimes they’re concerned. Is Tesla gonna compete with them on cells? I’m like, ‘No no, if you want to make the cells, be our guest.’ It’s just that we need a crazy number of batteries.”

Stories that Chronicle How Musk Reflects

Two new books — both written with Musk’s cooperation — peer into the mindset that made Musk the entrepreneurial genius of his times.

  • Liftoff by Eric Berger reviews the highs and lows of the SpaceX early years.
  • Power Play by Tim Higgins traces Tesla’s tumultuous journey from the launch of the 2009 Roadster, onto the Model S luxury sedan, and then to the mass appeal Model 3 — now the world’s best-selling electric car.

A New York Times book review chronicles the 2 books and Musk’s stormy rise to success.

In 2008, the Great Recession had hit the US. This sharp decline in economic activity, caused by the abrupt rise and fall of the US housing market due to mortgage-backed securities speculation and derivatives, hit many sectors. Musk assembled his top execs and admitted that Tesla was in real trouble — ready to run out of money. Millions of dollars of customer deposits for the Roadster had already been expended without deliveries. Replacing the existing CEO with himself, Musk cut 25% of the Tesla workforce, realizing that only 3 weeks of cash remained.

But on his BlackBerry was an image of the Model S luxury sedan that he envisioned as the next auto in the Tesla catalog. He borrowed the necessary funding to keep the company afloat and prodded his investors to match him.

When he received confirmation that the investors would back his idea for the company redirection, Musk was quite emotional. “All of his fortune was now on the line,” Higgins writes. “From the depths of the Great Recession, he’d done something that other US automakers were unable to do: avoid bankruptcy.”

Musk reflected on his feelings at that moment in time. “It felt like I had been taken out to the firing squad, and been blindfolded,” he admitted. “Then they fired the guns, which went click. No bullets came out. And then they let you free. Sure, it feels great. But you’re pretty [expletive] nervous.”

What Musk Knows Matters

What makes Elon Musk different than his competitors? He has a deep knowledge of the physics, thermodynamics, and technology underlying his products. Thus, he knows what boundaries he can push. “In meetings, Musk might ask his engineers to do something that, on the face of it, seemed absurd,” Berger writes. “When they protested that it was impossible, Musk would respond with a question designed to open their minds to the problem, and potential solutions. He would ask, ‘What would it take?’”

In an incredibly honest exchange at the bitcoin conference, Musk opened up to the audience.

“I would say I’ve had some pretty tough life experiences,” Musk revealed, “and Tesla’s probably responsible for two-thirds of all personal and professional pain combined, to give you a sense of perspective there.”

But in the same week, one of Musk’s fans attempted to assuage Musk’s admitted turmoil. The account user  — named the “Pope of Muskanity” — featured a clip from the popular video game Super Mario Bros. in a tweet. The character Mario had to wade past a variety of tough challenges and obstacles to win the game. The accompanying tweet noted, “How hard it is for Elon Musk to avoid controversies.”

The user tagged the Tesla CEO, who decided to react. “Although to be fair, I dig my own grave a lot.” He included some laughing emojis in his response.

The “Pope of Muskanity” continued the conversation, adding a tweet that contemplated the ideal of freedom. “Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are only actually positives if you act and think like you’re expected to, Master Elon! PS: Don’t worry, we faithful appreciate your candor.”

We’ve all watched Elon Musk navigate a spectrum of emotions in his public role as Tesla CEO –ranging from high anxiety to jubilant glee. He admits to his own foibles, such as the “significant mistakes” the company made in its Solar Roof project, which has had delays and cost overruns. He stated that the Cybertruck might flop, but said he doesn’t care, as he loves its unusual trapezoid-like design.

He’s often filtered, sometimes quick to react, and always eager to promote Tesla. Elon Musk reflects and previews, explains and exclaims, but he is always an inspiration for us who hope to live in a sustainable world one day. As Musk reflects on his rise to prominence, he offers us instruction about the ways that we, too, must self-assess yet move on with the will to transcend forks in the proverbial road.

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