It feels like just the other day that “Tesla Energy” was a new division at Tesla, a baby spawned by a still very young car company. Heck, Tesla wasn’t even a teenager yet.
The human brain can compress so much growth and development into a short mmmbop* when recalling memories far back in time, like when a parent is thinking back to when their child was a baby — whether that child is now 6, 10, or 36. So, I thought it would be fun and interesting to briefly go back in time with Tesla Energy in light of all that was just revealed at Tesla Battery Day. (*Yes, I did that — I made an allusion to Mmmbop.)
For years, the company’s name was actually Tesla Motors, not Tesla. A big part of that was because of a trademark dispute, but it also seemed logical at the time. Tesla was a car company, and like many before it, “motors” was a fitting term to include in the company name. When Tesla launched its Energy division, the idea of Tesla becoming much more than a car company was an intriguing proposition that — like many things Tesla — stimulated a bit of controversy between the popcorn munchers who were closely watching the show. Could Tesla really do something big on the energy side of things? Was Tesla an automaker, or was it a tech company? Was Tesla really a battery maker at its core?
When I was looking back in time at the history of Tesla Energy, 4 big moments rose to the surface. So, I’m arranging this “Tesla Flashbacks” article around those 4 periods of time.
1. Tesla Gigafactory 1 Announced
November 5, 2013
If you thought the stuff we heard and saw yesterday at Tesla Battery Day was a bit mind blowing (I did) and you’ve been following Tesla long enough, I bet there’s a good chance it reminded you of the time 6–7 years ago when Tesla announced it was going to build a “gigafactory” — a new term at the time.
The first mention I found of this first gigafactory was on the Q3 2013 Tesla shareholder call. Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, Chairman, and Product Architect at the time fielded a question from an analyst asking if the Tesla team had thought about building its own battery cell plant in order to deal with the company’s battery supply challenges. (It’s funny now to think that Tesla was having battery supply challenges at such a low level of vehicle demand and global battery production. Perhaps that’s a useful thing to reflect on when looking at Tesla’s new plans.) Elon responded that Tesla was indeed considering building a “gigafactory” for electric car batteries. He said that Tesla might build one with partners (the key partner being Panasonic). As I wrote at the time, “Later on, the topic came back up, and Elon said that it wasn’t the time to discuss this, but he then went on to say quite a bit about it. He said that it would be super green, solar powered, and huge.”
Here were a few summary points of Elon’s key statements on this topic from Tesla’s Q3 2013 quarterly conference call (via my liveblog of the call):
Elon Musk indicated the company was exploring a lot of different options, and the “gigafactory” would probably somewhere in North America. Though, Elon said they were still looking at a lot of options.
Questioner: Raw materials is not a supply concern, right?
Elon Musk: Yeah, that’s not an issue. There’s a lot of lithium out there. And lithium actually just makes up 1.3% of the battery pack / 2% of the battery cell.
February 27, 2014
The initial seeds of the idea were coming out in November 2013, but much more was ready to sprout by early 2014. At the end of February 2014, Tesla published its plan for its first gigafactory.
The long-term goal, which seemed wild and crazy at the time, was to produce enough batteries for production of 500,000 electric vehicles a year by 2020. That’s basically where we are now. That would be up from ~35,000 vehicles in 2014. Some believed in the tremendous growth. Some didn’t.
Furthermore, that meant producing more batteries in 2020 than the whole world had produced the year prior, in 2013.
The big plans made some people nervous, including some investors and one key partner. We reported in April 2014 that Panasonic was nervous about the grand plans.
“Panasonic, a major manufacturer of batteries, is reportedly hesitant to join Tesla Motors’ Gigafactory project because it would raise investment risks, according to Panasonic’s CEO Kazuhiro Tsuga,” we reported at the time. Indeed, years later, after the Gigafactory and Tesla had become clear successes, Panasonic executive vice president Yoshihiko Yamada admitted that the Panasonic team did think the whole plan was a bit “crazy” at the beginning. “Three years ago I thought this gigantic Gigafactory idea was crazy,” he noted in mid 2016. “Because then the production of the factory would exceed production of the industry. I thought it was a crazy idea. But I was crazy, and I was wrong after seeing extreme success of the announcement of the Model 3 and the strong demand.”
2. Tesla Powerwall Unveiled
April 30, 2015
In 2015, Tesla released its first stationary energy storage product, the Powerwall, alongside the large Powerpack for utility-scale needs. My first overview reaction was that the Tesla Energy products were much more competitive than I had assumed. Digging in more deeply in the following weeks, I found that, in reality, things were even better than assumed — Tesla was outcompeting other players in the home energy storage market.
Overall, the big deal here was that it showed Tesla was really branching out with batteries. It was not going to be confined to being a car company.
3. Tesla Gigafactory 1 Built
July 27, 2016
Tesla did it. Tesla and Panasonic built the Gigafactory that many thought was impossible and started initial operations. Of course, it was just a rather small portion of the factory back in 2016 relative to today’s numbers, but it was a monumental time and a widely celebrated success.
My article on opening day, July 27, 2016, titled “11 Key Tesla Gigafactory, Model 3, Solar, & Elon Romance Takeaways From Today’s Statements” was actually one of the first articles of mine that Elon Musk retweeted, and the first one on CleanTechnica. The last point on that list: “11. Elon is a romantic … especially for machines that make machines.” Sound familiar? It’s a favorite topic of Elon’s, and one that I think grows in importance and focus for him. If you haven’t already done so, see this article I published last month based on a recent chat I had with him: “Elon Musk: ‘Tesla’s Long-Term Competitive Advantage Will Be Manufacturing.’”
My favorite article about the opening of Gigafactory 1 actually came a couple of days later. It is one of my favorite articles ever here on CleanTechnica. I think it captures the core of what Tesla is and what Elon Musk does as a unique, hyper-successful businessman and engineer. At the time, everyone was going wild about the various very large numbers tied to the first gigafactory. I focused on something else. Today, those very large numbers look small compared to Tesla’s new plans, but the heart of my article is as relevant as ever. Check it out if you are intrigued: “Tesla Gigafactory 1 — Honestly, What’s The Big Deal? (At Essence, It’s Not The Numbers).”
In 4–7 years, the things revealed at Tesla Battery Day may not seem so crazy. Some of them will be long implemented. Some may be hitting mass production. Some may have fizzled and faded away as unrealistic dreams. The dreaming that brought them to life, though, will be a part of people as it is today, and will be creating the next wild step in the evolution of Tesla, the evolution of batteries, and the evolution of the world. Join in if you think you also can dream.
4. Tesla Acquired SolarCity
On August 1, 2016, Tesla announced it and SolarCity would “combine,” as long as shareholders approved of the merger. Indeed, shareholders approved in November 2016 and the deal was done.
The solar side of Tesla Energy is quite different from the battery side, though, so that’s a topic for another day. The exciting thing about the solar side is it’s starting to really hit a cost competitiveness and ramp up in the way many of us hoped it would under the Tesla name.
- Elon Musk Explains Why Tesla Solar Power Is So Cheap — CleanTechnica Exclusive
- Tesla Autopilot Innovation Comes From Team Of ~300 Jedi Engineers — Interview With Elon Musk
- Our Tesla Battery Day coverage
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