JB Straubel Speaks At OCE Discovery
JB Straubel is one of my favorite people at Tesla. He speaks as the eternal optimist, always hopeful and pushing for the brighter future that he has already imagined to be possible. The better world for humanity is not just a construct doomed to a churning eternity in his imagination, but rather, is based on logical building blocks of complementary technologies that he and his team at Tesla are pioneering.
JB’s enthusiasm stems from his firsthand knowledge of a handful of clean technologies that have evolved along parallel paths and are rapidly approaching the point of convergence. Solar, Storage, Electric Vehicles, and Wind are all reaching (or just slightly past) the point of critical mass, and preparing to hit the steep side of the technology adoption curve. No more early adopters here — Tesla has gone mainstream.
JB spoke yesterday at the OCE Discovery conference, where he dug into some neat details on Tesla, Powerwall, and beyond.
The Road Leading To Tesla
The path leading to his destiny at Tesla wasn’t clear early on. Though he shared that he always found EVs to be exciting, he started in a different vein of the technology, with a passion for solar car racing. That evolved over time into a desire to build an electric airplane, which was how JB ended up meeting Elon Musk in the first place.
They were both in LA around the time Elon was searching for a new EV to fund, back, and carry forward into the future, and JB went up to pitch his electric airplane idea. The pitch was not successful, though it led to a very fruitful discussion about EVs. It was evident that both shared the same elevated passion for EVs and that Elon understood the magnitude of the opportunity and the challenge that EVs presented.
Not may people at the time saw the true promise of EVs, and the spark of passion for EVs that they both shared brought them together in a friendship that eventually led to the Tesla we know today. It took a few more months, but they eventually met the founding Tesla team, moved into funding, and the rest is history.
Hung up on the promise of electric aviation? JB is still hot for it, but with his hard-earned insights from working at Tesla for the last decade, he related that batteries still have a ways to go before electric-powered aviation will make sense. If cars have to overcome the sheer weight of the batteries to get them moving (and quickly!), aviation takes that challenge to the next level with the requirement to get them to actually lift into the air and stay afloat for a few hours. Thankfully, the same tech and chemistries that are being created for Tesla batteries should help move things forward on the aviation front as well.
Working With Elon
Getting back to Tesla, JB talked a bit about how it is to work with Elon, noting that he is challenging to work for — which I think is the general consensus from what we know of his work habits. The difficulties of working with and for Elon stem from his passion. Elon is the ultimate “true believer” in the mission of Tesla and his passion drives him to work harder than possibly anyone else, and expects the same extreme commitment from his coworkers.
JB called Musk an inspiring visionary with perfectionist tendencies, teasing out many of the same labels that were also applied to Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs. The mold doesn’t fit very well beyond that, as Steve also leaned towards being a bit bi-polar, with work at Apple often judged as the harsher version of “crap” or “amazing,” with little falling between the two extremes.
What Does It Take To Be Successful?
I resonate with JB’s perspective because I am also an optimist who doesn’t just float around in the dreamy ideals of the clouds but also with a solid connection to reality. Speaking to passions, JB shared that, to be successful, it is imperative that people chase their passions. That’s the optimist speaking.
Rolling forward and speaking from loads of real-world experience, JB continued by relating the importance of perseverance. No matter what you’re doing, life gets hard, work gets hard, and the only way to get through those tough times — especially when it is necessary to overcome the challenges that are making life at work difficult — is to persevere. Pushing through difficult situations builds character. Repeatedly conquering increasingly larger challenges builds confidence that “we can do this” and allows for greater capacity to handle larger challenges in the future.
And it is that confidence that, after being forged over time, provides the resolve necessary to succeed. Stick to it even when it seems impossible.
Digging into the cost of solar, JB related the well known (in the industry) fact that module costs are low. Most people think the bulk of a solar system purchase must be the modules, but that’s pretty far from reality. I added another 5 panels to our residential solar system last year and the cost of the panels was less than $1200.
The glaring outage in the solar industry is pricing transparency, and as JB related yesterday, that’s where the opportunities are to reduce the cost of solar even further. Specifically, he mentioned that there is plenty of room for innovation in power electronics, inverters, and install costs. Install costs are the largest single cost in most installs and include customer acquisition, sales, engineering, and installation — many of which are extremely inflated when compared to similarly sized installations in Germany and other developed solar markets.
With opportunities to cut costs and further improve time to install from the date of the original order, JB believes the cost of solar will continue to fall as these opportunities are tapped. With prices continuing to drop, the cast for distributed solar gets even stronger and tails naturally into a robust market for residential storage.
Utilities Are At An Inflection Point
Tesla is obviously already playing in this space with its Powerwall and Powerpack offerings … for residential and commercial/industrial markets, respectively. JB shared that installers and utilities are increasingly looking at their entire distributed solar and storage base as a unit — which, with the proper levers to incentivize customers, could be leveraged to respond en masse to the needs of the grid, mitigating the need for peaker units, grid-scale batteries, and new electric generating units.
These technologies are extremely disruptive for the entrenched utilities and offer both an opportunity for complete dethroning of existing utilities and an opportunity to step up to the innovation challenge to design their way into the future … and we are seeing cases of utilities taking both approaches. Some progressive utilities are embracing and leading change while others are resisting … to which JB shared:
“The longer [a utility] fends off innovation, the more fearsome it will be when it breaks down the doors”
He related a specific example of some utilities that are actually installing Powerwalls for their customers so they can control the distributed mass as a whole. This move adds intelligence to the grid along with bi-directional communication that can enable it to react as a whole. Installing in homes takes grid resiliency to the next level while also adding new value for customers in the form of backup power in the event of a [less likely] power outage.
JB shared that Powerwall gives customer the ability to generate power during the day with solar which can then be stored in Powerwall … then used back at night, bringing the full daily cycle (or at least the majority of it) in-house. Powerwall also gives solar owners the ability to keep generating and using power in the event of an outage.
Check out at least a bit of the talk above to get the flavor for his comments.
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