Is Elon Musk the next Henry Ford?

Elon Musk doesn’t mind making comparisons between himself and Henry Ford. Others are doing it as well.

In announcing his plans for a “Gigafactory” to manufacture batteries for a fleet of 500,000 Teslas, Musk said it would be like Ford opening his famous River Rouge plant, the move that signaled the birth of mass production.

The founder of PayPal and current titular leader of Silicon Valley (now that Steve Jobs is gone), Musk is not one for small measures. The factory he is now dangling before four western states would produce more lithium-ion batteries than are now being produced in the entire world. And that’s not all. He’s designing his new operation to mesh with another cutting-edge, non-fossil-fuel energy technology – solar storage. His partner will be SolarCity (where Musk sits on the board), run by his cousin Lyndon Rive. Together they are looking beyond mere automobile propulsion and are envisioning a world where all this solar and wind energy stuff comes true.

So, is Musk a modern-day Prometheus, bringing the fire to propel an entirely new transportation system? Or, as many critics charge, is he just conning investors onto a leaky vessel that is eventually going to crash upon the shores of reality? As the saying goes, we report, you decide.

One investor that is already showing some qualms is Panasonic, which already supplies Tesla with all its batteries and would presumably help the company fill the gap between the $2 billion it just raised from a convertible-bond offering and the $5 billion needed to build the plant. “Our approach is to make investments step by step,” Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo last week. “Elon plans to produce more affordable models besides [the] Model S, and I understand his thinking and would like to cooperate as much as we can. But the investment risk is definitely larger.” Of course, this is Japan, where “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Corporate executives are not known for sticking their necks out.

Another possible investor is Apple, which has mountains of cash and, at least under Steve Jobs, was always willing to jump into some new field – music, cell phones – to try to set it straight. This is a little more ambitious than the Lisa or the iPod and Jobs is no longer around to steer the ship, but Apple and Musk officials held a meeting last spring that stirred a lot of talk about a possible merger. A much more likely scenario, according to several commentators, is that Apple would become a major player in the Gigafactory.

And a Gigafactory it will be. Consider this. The three largest battery factories in the country right now are:

1)    The LG Chem factory in Holland, Mich. is 600,000 square feet, employs 125 people and produces 1 gigawatt hour (GWH) of battery output per year.

2)    The Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn. is a 475,000 square-foot facility with 300 employees puts out 4.8 GWH per year.

3)    A123 Systems’ battery factory in Livonia, Mich. is 291,000 square feet, employs 400 people and produces 0.6 GWH per year.

Both LG and Nissan received stimulus grants from the Department of Energy, built to overcapacity and are now operating part-time.

Now here’s what Musk is proposing. His Gigafactory would cover 10 million square feet, employ 6,500 people and produce 35 GWH per year of battery power. Basically, Musk’s operation is going to be ten times better anything ever built before, at a time that most of what exists isn’t even running fulltime. Does that sound like something of Henry-Ford proportions? Similar to Ford’s $5 a day wages, perhaps?

There are, of course, people who think all of this is crazy. In the Wall Street Journal blog, “Will Tesla’s $5 Billion Gigafactory Make a Battery Nobody Else Wants?,” columnist Mike Ramsey expresses skepticism over whether Tesla’s strategy of using larger numbers of smaller lithium-ion is the right approach. “Every other carmaker is using far fewer, much larger batteries,” he wrote. “Tesla’s methodology – incorrectly derided in its early days as simply using laptop batteries — has allowed it to get consumer electronics prices for batteries while companies like General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. work to drive down costs without the full benefits of scale. Despite this ability to lower costs, no other company is following Tesla’s lead. Indeed, in speaking with numerous battery experts at the International Battery Seminar and Exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale a few weeks ago, they said that the larger cells would eventually prove to be as cost effective, and have better safety and durability. This offers a reason why other automakers haven’t gone down the same path.

But Musk has managed to produce a car that has a range of 200 miles, while the Leaf has a range of 85 miles and the Chevy Spark barely makes 82. Musk must be doing something right. And with Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico all vying to be the site of the Gigafactory, it’s more than likely that the winning state will be kicking in something as well. So, the factory seems likely to get built, even on the scheduled 2017 rollout that Tesla has projected.

At that point, Musk will have the capacity to produce batteries to go in 500,000 editions of the Tesla Model E, which he says will sell for $35,000. Sales of the $100,000 Model S were 22,000 last year. Does this guy think big or what?

To date, Silicon Valley doesn’t have a terribly good record on energy projects. Since Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers fell under Al Gore’s spell in 2006, its earnings have been virtually flat and the firm is now edging away from solar and wind investments. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s spotty record in renewables was also the subject of a recent 60 Minutes segment. But, as venture capitalists say, it only takes one big success to make up for all the failures.

Will Tesla’s Model E be the revolutionary technology that, at last, starts making a dent in oil’s grip on the transportation sector? At least one investor has faith. “I’d rather leave all my money to Elon Musk that give it to charity,” was the recent evaluation of multi-billionaire Google founder Larry Page.

Natural Gas Demand Causes the EU to Invite Russia to Join…

Hold the presses, stop the cable and network news shows, break away from Twitter, and forget for a moment about Facebook… Why? Read the latest wire from The Associated Press! Many European nations, including Great Britain, have signed a multibillion dollar long term contract for Russian natural gas. The signing was accompanied by a decision by the European Community to integrate Russia into the community’s governance– NATO officials expressed anger and disappointment. Great Britain’s ambassador to America gently, but affirmatively, responded to the New York Time’s question concerning “what does this do to America and Great Britain’s special relationship? Well, it isn’t so special anymore.” She went on, “the world is evolving and Europe, as well as Great Britain, is evolving also. . . The alliance, and indeed NATO, is a relic of the past. I am sorry but that’s just how it is!”

Please don’t respond like many in America did to the late 1930s broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Wells. Don’t fear! don’t run out to the street! No deal with Russia for natural gas has yet been signed, NATO is still intact. The European Commission and European Union are still alive, if not well, given the economic problems plaguing many of its members and the continent as well as Great Britain.

While not factual, my flight into hyperbole and negative fantasy could become a reality sometime in the future. What got me thinking about the possibilities was an interesting article in the Oct. 31 Financial Times (coincidentally, on Halloween) by Paolo Scaroni, Chief Executive of Eni, Europe’s largest natural gas dealer.

Scaroni’s thoughts were not offered to trick or treat us. They were meant to make us think seriously about opportunity costing and risk analysis sure to be undertaken by European countries because of their increased need for natural gas and other energy sources.

Scaroni suggests that Europe’s present energy policies and related energy costs impede economic growth, and do not reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Of note, he indicates that “the problem is that we have so far failed to grasp the implications of the U.S. shale revolution for Europe. Thanks to the rapid increase in efficient non-conventional gas production, U.S. companies pay about $3.50 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) for their natural gas…That is about a third of what Europeans pay. “

Apart from high gas feedstock costs, Europeans also pay a hefty set of charges to sustain incentives to invest in renewables. As a result, Europe’s electricity is “twice as expensive as America’s” and gives the U.S. a clear competitive advantage with investors around the world, including investors from Europe. Why invest, build or expand in Europe if your company is energy intensive?  The U.S. has the Red Sox, Lady Gaga, Madonna and, most importantly, relatively cheap natural gas fuel.

Because natural gas in the U.S. now crowds out coal, Europe gets a lot of its surplus coal for power plants. So while natural gas use has declined, it is increasingly hostage to dirty U.S. coal- sort of a negative equilibrium for our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Rising carbon emissions from coal have come close to netting out the carbon benefits from investment in renewables, natural gas and the economic downturn.

What are Europe’s generally intelligent public and private sector leaders to do?  Sounds obvious!  Increase imports of shale gas from the U.S.!  No, says Scaroni. By the time transport costs are added and subject to liquefaction in the U.S. for shipping and regasification for use in Europe, shale gas exported from the U.S. is twice as expensive as gas in the U.S. While likely a bit exaggerated, the author indicates that buying U.S. natural gas would be economically disastrous.

It is also not a good political move. Besides the costs for U.S. natural gas, many Europeans still view the U.S. as “that” upstart nation, once defined by old Europe as the “colonies.” Heck, it was only near 325 years ago; it’s too early to pay reparations.

Scaroni thinks the answer is to explore home grown shale oil assets and nuclear energy, as well as increasing the efficiency of conventional fuels. To secure the first two, however, will be tough given the opposition of environmentalists and people who would like to keep Europe just as it is. Further, high density wall to wall development throughout Europe and Great Britain creates even more fear concerning despoiling the remaining open space and breeds an intense “not in my neighborhood” attitude in many areas. Efficiency is praised by most, because it is often used devoid of real meaning in political rhetoric. Who can be against it, until specifics and likely mandates, costs, and its impact are put on the table?

Scaroni, realizing the obstacles to lowering the costs of gas to U.S. benchmark prices, suggests strengthening commercial and political ties with Russia and perhaps other traditional non U.S. energy partners.  Reading between the lines of the author’s words, he seems to be saying, “let’s milk Russia for all the comparably inexpensive gas we can get.”  WOW!  Communist! Reprobate!  Misanthrope!  No.  Probably just a good analyst and business person.

Without access to NSA data or James Bond, I still almost can hear the buzz at the Pentagon and State Department.  I can see the dour faces at NATO offices in Brussels. I can visualize the depression in the EC and EU. Sure, Russia may soon find a welcome mat in Europe. Its entrance price will be relatively cheap natural gas. New alliances, new travel patterns for diplomats, better food in Russia in the future, new political fun and games as well as new problems for the U.S.

Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe are likely to increase, but Russia’s natural gas dominance is probably not around the corner. The West can take a deep breath.  Use of fracking, governed by strong environmental regulations, likely will increase and result in expanded natural gas supplies in Europe and Great Britain.  While exports from Russia will increase, they will reflect a measured increase at least in the short term.

Russian exports to Europe and Great Britain will not have a major impact on the U.S. We can manage any uncertain political changes and the European price of natural gas will not have a major effect on the U.S. price of the same.

What’s the U.S. going to do with its natural gas? While LNG exports from the U.S. may increase to Great Britain and Europe (as well as Asia), the increase will be moderate, given the continued absence of sufficient port capacity, the cost and the slow pace of government approvals. Pressure, in light of predicted surpluses and the advocacy of alternative fuel supporters, may help open up the almost monopolistic U.S. vehicular fuel markets and increase natural gas demand.

Natural gas prices in the U.S. will remain subject by and large to U.S. production and related costs, as well as regional market behavior and investor speculation. Contrary to oil, natural gas produced in the U.S. likely will not play a major role for at least the next several years in global markets

Is this good for U.S. and U.S. consumers?  On balance, yes. The gap between demand and production as well as production potential will remain visible. ROI in natural gas wells and rigs will probably be sufficient to secure modest production increases. Natural gas prices will likely go up over time but remain well under the price of oil when both are converted to vehicular fuels. Assuming positive government rule-making and the increased use of natural gas derivatives, ethanol and methanol as alternative transitional vehicular fuels, consumers at the pump will benefit from the continued differential and the U.S. will benefit security-wise as well as environmentally and economically.