In among the gloom and doom in the US, there is a sliver of good news that we should focus on. And it has a delightful SA connection. Elon Musk, the Pretoria-born icon of innovation, announced a breakthrough in solar technology that has far-reaching implications for power supply around the world.
Most people know that Musk is the CEO of rocket-launching SpaceX and electric car company Tesla. Until recently, it wasn't widely known that he is the chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity.
Instead of placing solar panels on top of roofs, Musk unveiled roof tiles that are solar panels. Demonstrating how tough and stylish they are, he proudly pointed out that they are cheaper than the usual (US) slate or shingle tiles.
It’s been the dream of sci-fi writers for decades: a solar-panel roof that gives you power while being impervious to hail. Now it’s possible.
This week the shareholders of Tesla and SolarCity will vote on the proposed US$2.6bn merger. "It is really an accident of history that the companies are even separate," Musk told an interviewer last week.
And it seems to be so. Tesla, the maker of grand and beautiful electric cars, has great skills in battery storage, a key component of making the cars run efficiently. It did this so well that it produced the Tesla Powerwall, a smart battery pack that can be mounted on the wall of a house and supply it with its energy needs.
SolarCity is the US-based maker of solar panels, which has a clever business model: it pays for the expensive panels (often out of the budget of the home owner), supplies the home owners with the electricity they need, and sells the excess back into the grid.
It makes sense. Musk cites a big installation for the Hawaiian power utility where SolarCity is providing the solar array and Tesla the storage.
But there is controversy in this merger. SolarCity could earn $1bn in revenue next year and could bring $500m in cash to Tesla’s balance sheet over the next three years, Tesla says. There is also a projection that the joint companies could achieve $150m in cost savings. The problem is, Tesla shareholders worry that the merger will distract the carmaker from its already high production targets.
Musk is bullish, saying Tesla had a profitable third quarter and was on track to deliver 50,000 new vehicles in the second half of this year.
Combining the two firms makes a lot of sense: you use your roof to charge up your Tesla Powerwall to power your house, and then recharge your car. It’s a no-brainer if you own a Tesla, or care about the environment, or want to get off the grid.
As Musk said: "You really need product integration. You want the solar panels and the batteries to work seamlessly."
Ultimately our houses will go solar and I’m sure the next car I buy will be electric . So as dark clouds gather over the US , let’s bask in this little bit of sunshine indicating a greener future.