Tesla CTO on nuclear: You have amazing solar resources in Africa

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Tesla’s cars may be more common on the streets and in the houses of LA than in Joburg, but its large scale PowerPack battery systems might become a regular feature in currently off-grid villages across the African continent.

That’s the view of Tesla CTO and co-founder, JB Strauber, who spoke at the Accenture Innovation Conference in Sandton today.

Strauber told the audience that in areas where there’s no existing energy infrastructure to compete with “there’s a much lower bar to implement new technologies,” and that he believes renewables with distributed storage in the shape of batteries like PowerPack could help to bring electricity to those who need it.

As a firm, he explained, Tesla wasn’t founded to “focus on a tech fad. We wanted to focus on a problem that was meaningful to us and would be relevant for decades to come.”

Getting power to the parts of Africa currently without supply is one of those problems.

At present, the firm has a small office in Cape Town which is focused on investigating the potential for large scale energy storage. At least one pan-continental supermarket chain is looking at using a combination of solar power and Tesla storage for its shops.

It’s very early days, Strauber stressed, but as the firm’s massive Gigafactory in Nevada gets up to speed the cost of batteries should drop significantly. By leveraging economies of scale, Tesla plans to build enough batteries a year in Gigafactory to kit out half a million of its vehicles for 30% less cost.  Right now, he explained, lithium ion batteries are expensive because of huge inefficiencies in the supply chain. Tesla aims to “industrialise” the process of building batteries through the Gigafactory, although huge orders for its own cars could soak up a lot of the initial production – the firm has already taken over 400 000 orders for its forthcoming Series III saloon.

Contrary to some reports, however, the firm isn’t planning on building a second Gigafactory for battery production in South Africa.

While its latest Model III electric cars can be ordered in South Africa, Strauber says that the firm is more interested in the energy market right now. Until demand for the cars is high enough, there’s no plan to begin building the same kind of charging infrastructure that the firm has created in the US, Europe and Asia. Internationally, Strauber said that one new charging station is currently opening roughly every 24 hours.

When asked about Eskom’s recent announcement to focus on coal and nuclear power stations, which the parastatal argues are better value for money, Strauber re-iterated his personal vision that the world will eventually get to 100% renewable energy, “it’s just a question of when”.

“There’s no point going back to the CO2 emissions levels of a couple of years ago,” he said, “Because the amount of CO2 concentrated in the atmosphere was still rising then. It’s like we’re digging a hole, and we’re stuck in the hole and the solution is to dig slower.”

Solar generators, combined with smart grids and distributed storage to smooth out the supply, will be the predominant source of energy, he believes, because it’s cheap and fast to deploy.

Despite Eskom’s insistence that renewables are too expensive to invest in, it’s nuclear, Strauber says, which is cost-constrained. “There are so many nuclear plants under construction or in stasis around the world… you have amazing solar resources [in South Africa]. It’s a much better solution to scale up.”

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.