Now Elon Musk Is Building the World’s Biggest Solar Panel Factory

The electric-car entrepreneur aims to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

Now Elon Musk Is Building the World’s Biggest Solar Panel Factory

Elon Musk, cofounder and CEO of American electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors, poses with a Tesla during a visit to Amsterdam on Jan. 31. (Photo: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images)

Todd Woody is TakePart's senior editor for environment and wildlife.

Is Elon Musk out to save world or dominate it? Both, it seems, given today’s announcement that the electric-car entrepreneur and space pioneer intends to build the world’s largest solar panel factory in New York so he can sell you carbon-free electricity to power your home and car in a bid to push fossil fuels off the power grid. 

Musk serves as chairman of SolarCity, the nation’s biggest solar installer, which Tuesday morning revealed it is acquiring a Silicon Valley photovoltaic panel manufacturer called Silevo in a deal worth as much as $350 million. The startup claims to have developed technology to make solar panels that produce more electricity at lower cost than those currently on the market.

“Our intent is to combine what we believe is fundamentally the best photovoltaic technology with massive economies of scale to achieve a breakthrough in the cost of solar power,” Musk wrote in a blog post Tuesday along with Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive, and Peter Rive, the company’s chief technology officer. (Musk and the Rives are cousins.)

“Without decisive action to lay the groundwork today, the massive volume of affordable, high-efficiency panels needed for unsubsidized solar power to outcompete fossil fuel grid power simply will not be there when it is needed,” they added.

Peter Rive told TakePart that SolarCity expects to install 1 gigawatt of solar panels in 2015—double this year’s installations, and as much as some manufacturers’ total capacity. 

“We want to get SolarCity and rest of the industry to an annualized capacity of 400 gigawatts a year,” he said. “It seems like a massive number, but that’s where we need to get for solar to be the world’s dominant energy source.”

It’s an audacious move. SolarCity’s expertise is nailing solar panels to rooftops, not manufacturing them. China dominates that market, and in recent years a score of companies have gone bankrupt amid a worldwide glut of solar panels.

In turn, photovoltaic manufacturing has all but disappeared in the United States. Building such a factory will likely cost billions of dollars, though SolarCity said it is in “advanced discussions” with potential investors to finance the facility. Rive said the company expects to break ground on the factory soon and that it will be producing 1 gigawatt of panels by the end of 2016.

The move comes four months after Musk announced plans to build the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery factory. The big idea: The $5 billion “gigafactory” would allow Tesla to manufacture as many as half a million electric cars a year by 2020, driving down costs to make battery-powered vehicles a mass-market phenomenon.

Musk and SolarCity’s road map for photovoltaic manufacturing is as ambitious.

“At a targeted capacity greater than 1 [gigawatt] within the next two years, it will be one of the single largest solar-panel production plants in the world,”  Musk and the Rives wrote about the Silevo factory. “This will be followed in subsequent years by one or more significantly larger plants at an order of magnitude greater annual production capacity.”

“SolarCity may acquire additional photovoltaics companies as needed to ensure clear technology leadership,” they added.

As grand as those plans are, they’re unlikely to match the impact of building the world’s largest battery factory. While the so-called gigafactory would allow Tesla to dominate the global battery market, its 1 gigawatt solar factory would have a smaller effect, given that 50 gigawatts of solar panels are expected to be produced worldwide this year.

But the end game seems increasingly clear: Musk wants to pull the plug on your local utility, take you off the carbon-polluting power grid, and bypass the oil companies. SolarCity already offers some California customers Tesla battery packs that can store electricity from the solar panels it installs on their rooftops for use when the sun is not shining.

If SolarCity and Tesla can make ever-cheaper solar panels and battery packs—and that’s still a big if—we may all be living off the grid one day. 

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