Why Elon Musk might just change the world - TechCentral

Why Elon Musk might just change the world

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileElon Musk’s keynote address last week, at which he took the wraps off a much-anticipated battery technology, was fascinating to watch.

Firstly, here was a South African-born entrepreneur and inventor — his accent still giving away his heritage, despite 27 years living in Canada and the US — standing on a stage and attracting the interest of millions around the world.

The Pretoria-educated Musk, 43, who left South Africa in 1988, when he was 17, is now regularly compared to great inventors like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Some have called him the next Steve Jobs.

Yet Musk’s keynote was almost the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect in the high-technology industry. His presentation lacked the stage-managed theatrics of Apple, Google and Microsoft keynotes. Instead, when a slightly nervous-looking Musk took to the stage, he stammered a little through his presentation.

He still managed to crack a few jokes, though, and kept the audience lapping up his every word.

Musk’s performance was by no means off the cuff, but it lacked bombast. The keynote was the better for it. After all, Musk wasn’t debuting the latest iteration of a me-too smartphone, but rather something that has the potential to change the world.

His stated goal is no less than weaning humanity off planet-warming fossil fuels. And why not? After all, this is the man who builds advanced space rockets and who wants to help colonise Mars to ensure mankind becomes an interplanetary species.

Tesla Energy’s Powerwall, the subject of Musk’s keynote, is by no means revolutionary. Countless South Africans have already reduced their reliance on the grid by installing similar solutions, usually involving inverters and car batteries.

But Musk’s wall-mounted battery battery solution for homes and businesses is the first such product that could gain meaningful scale globally and, when tied to solar panels, could have a real impact on minimising millions of people’s reliance on dirty energy sources.

The Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery designed to store energy at a residential level for load shifting (using battery power when grid prices are higher, for example) as well as for backup power and self-consumption of solar power generation.

To South Africans fed up with Eskom’s rolling blackouts, this must seem like manna from heaven. With prices starting at R36 000 (excluding taxes, duties, inverters, installation and optional solar panels), the Tesla technology is likely to prove a popular way among well-to-do South Africans of lessening their reliance on Eskom.

Available in 7kWh and 10kWh configurations, it consists of a lithium-ion battery pack, liquid thermal control system and software that receives commands from a solar inverter. The wall-mounted unit is integrated with the local grid.

The company is developing bigger and more robust solutions for business customers, too. Indeed, Musk’s technology is highly scaleable and could even be used by utility companies to provide electricity to entire cities.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Tesla is grouping 100kWh “battery blocks” to scale from 500kWh to 10MWh and more. Musk says it’s designed to be “infinitely scaleable”.

Utilities will be able to store solar power and offer it into the grid at peak demand times, for example. They will also be able to use the technology as a buffer while power output from a large generation source, such as a power station, is brought up or down.

Musk has open-sourced the patents behind the technology, allowing other companies to build similar systems of their own. In his keynote, he actively encouraged this. He seems genuinely interested in developing the global market as quickly as possible to lessen the reliance on fossil fuels, even if that means handing a big slice of it to other companies.

“Once we’re able to rely on renewable energy sources for our power consumption, the top 50% of the dirtiest power generation resources could retire early. We would have a cleaner, smaller, and more resilient energy grid,” Tesla says in a statement.

For many South Africans, the first prize will be having a reliable source of power. Helping save the planet may be a secondary consideration.

  • Duncan McLeod is founder and editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
  • This column is also published in the Sunday Times


  1. Ok that’s great to know – thanks!! I didn’t watch the keynote – not enough bandwidth 🙁

  2. Vusumuzi Sibiya on

    >>Utilities will be able to store solar power and offer it into the grid at peak demand times, for example. They will also be able to use the technology as a buffer while power output from a large generation source, such as a power station, is brought up or down.

    The sooner we can replace the words load shedding in our vocabulary with the word Powerwall, the better – Enough Said!!!

  3. You can replace Load Shedding with the correct terminology and that is: POWER CUTS. Simple.
    Oh and sorry to disappoint you this Musk toy is already dropping out of favour in his land of opportunity and NSA snooping.
    You want a REAL solution to the ongoing energy crisis? Try this, it works: Thorium Reactors.
    Thorium is both cheap, plentiful and safe from melt down hazard.
    Calling Eskom…Calling Eskom.

  4. “With prices starting at R36 000 (excluding taxes, duties, inverters, installation and optional solar panels), ” Excluding, bla, bla, bla…. And I take it 36K is only for the 7kWh option as well? It will still cost an arm and a leg, and for the average person in SA, it just wont make sense to have this as an option.
    What I really wish is that the banks can get in on the action and give a loan at very low rates for us the average SA person to install options like this. I would rather pay the bank a R2000 per month than give it to Eskom!

  5. Vusumuzi Sibiya on

    >>You want a REAL solution to the ongoing energy crisis? Try this, it works: Thorium Reactors.

    What I really want Baas Davebee is for all South Africans to think solutions or using the;

    >>correct SA terminology and that is:

    Maak ‘n Plan – it works:

    And it certainly takes us in a direction that is far more beneficial to all of us, regardless of our differing political point of views.

    I will definitely have a look at Thorium Reactors – but I also believe that we should always support solutions by South Africans when they do have the potential to change the world…

    …who else will if we don’t begin to support South Africans?

  6. What I really wish, is that Eskom, in stead of paying for Gupta breakfasts and striking unproductive workers would subsidise this to reduce load off the grid. If every househould have a battery and solar panels, we may not need another filthy medupi.

  7. Maybe Thorium is a better type of fuel for a nuclear power station, maybe not, I guess we will know in five to ten years time. I’m not sure Eskom should be investing in something experimental given its current situation. In any event its not really a comparison though as even current technology nuclear power stations take at least ten years to build…

  8. Thorium IS BETTER and thankfully the Chinese are now getting in on the Thorium idea in a big way.
    It sure beats the hell out of this Musk loony tunes bollocks which is nothing more than a UPS hung on the wall.

  9. Greg Mahlknecht on

    That’s 10 years away. No need to pause any other efforts in the meantime. Musk’s “big picture” for the world is moving entirely to renewable sources, and local batteries are a very important part of this transition.

    Whatever the “next tech” for power stations is, having a local cache of power will always be a good idea; it gives consumers more options and control.

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