Elon Musk Talks Carbon Tax, Gigafactory, & Mars At AGU Conference


Elon Musk at AGU conference

On Wednesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke via webcast to the 23,000 members of the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. As usual, he had a lot on his mind.

First, he spoke on one of his favorite subjects — climate change. Since the very beginning, Tesla has been about convincing people to transition from cars powered by fossil fuels to those that run on electricity. Musk is a firm believer that the price of fossil fuels must include the cost of the damage to the environment and society that they do. Thanks in large measure to enormous direct and indirect subsidies paid by national and local governments around the world, the cost of fossil fuels is unnaturally low because it does not factor in what Musk calls these “untaxed externalities.”

According to a report in GeekWire, continuing to do so “is analogous to not paying for garbage collection,” Musk says. “It’s not as though we should say, in the case of garbage, ‘Have a garbage-free society.’ It’s very difficult to have a garbage-free society. But it’s just important that people pay for the garbage collection.”

“When the prices are wrong, then the wrong thing happens in the economy. … Effectively, we’re ‘incenting’ bad behavior,” he told the AGU meeting. “It’s kinda like if we had high taxes on fruits and vegetables, and low taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. That wouldn’t make sense. That’s sort of what we have now with respect to energy.”

Musk then said that the Gigafactory outside Reno will enable “moderate improvements” in batteries. He targets increases in power density on the order of 5% to 8% a year when the factory gets into full production. Economies of scale will be “pushed to [their] limits,” he told the group, in order to realize lower battery prices over time.

He also said the factory would have its own dedicated battery recycling program. Much of the raw materials inside a spent lithium-ion battery can be recycled into new batteries. He compares those raw materials to “high grade ore.”

“It’s way better to mine battery packs than rocks,” he says.

Lastly, he spoke about his dream of colonizing Mars, claiming it will be mankind’s last, best hope if it fails to control climate change here on earth. “It will be super hard to do this and it will take a long time. I don’t expect to live to see it but I think if we aim for that objective, we (our species) will be OK.”

Musk was asked what sparked his interest in space travel and science. His answer gives a revealing glimpse into the man. “I used to worry about the meaning of life a lot when I was a teenager, until I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and it basically said that the universe was the answer,” Musk said. “I think it helps provide meaning in life.” There is even a reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide buried deep in the software for most Model S cars, if you can find it.

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  • ddmmrr

    If we had the technological capability to terra form Mars, wouldn’t we then have the capability to deal with the effects of global warming right here on Earth? Come on, Elon. There are plenty of better reasons to colonize other planets than “climate change.”

    • Steve Hanley

      You would think so, wouldn’t you?

    • Garrity

      Having the technology to combat global warming on Earth is one thing. Getting all the countries to agree to participate fully is another. Terra forming portions of Mars and allowing a select few ( who have the funds) to go seems more doable.

      • ddmmrr

        What about a device that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and spits out carbon sludge…or carbon blocks…or molded carbon i3 frames? You don’t need anybody to agree to it. You can simply take the hundreds of billions it would take to setup the Mars station and setup 100 such stations on uninhabited islands around the world.

    • James Rowland

      Terraforming of Mars is expected to take centuries, and has the opposite
      goal: Mars must be warmed to make it habitable.

      We know how to warm a planet; our current challenge on Earth is to figure out how to not warm it.

      Elon’s stated two general motivations to become a multiplanitary species:

      1. Back-up protection from existential risk. (Keep human consciousness alive.)
      2. A great adventure. (Something meaningful and inspiring to do.)

      Climate change is of course only a part of 1, but it is high impact and time critical; not a bad choice to focus on. There are relatively few things (e.g. AI safety) that could top it in the near future.

      • ddmmrr

        Call me boring but my chief problem is that two very different goals, one which is quite easy to solve and requires concrete, rather cheap and readily available technology to achieve (preventing and even reversing climate change) is being conflated with an aspirational goal that requires more resources than is available at the disposal of our entire species ( Mars exploration). To quote a familiar expression, “this is why we cannot have nice things.”

        • James Rowland

          Easy? In principle maybe, but not in practice due to the scale of the problem. It’s taking decades, despite all the effort and good will.

          You can correctly say more or less the same thing about colonising (and ultimately terraforming) Mars; no radically new technology is needed, just a whole lot more of it and less cost.

          Make space flight cheap enough and this project need not detract significantly from our efforts to fix civilisation on Earth.

          The resources required for routine access to Mars might be economically a couple orders of magnitude more than we can afford. Not coincidentally, this is exactly the cost saving SpaceX is targeting with their reusable rocket program.

          If humanity can build a self-sustaining civilisation on Earth, it should be able to do it elsewhere. The project will need a long runway, but if take-off can happen it is worth the attempt.

          Generally, we can’t have nice things because people aren’t working to make the nice things happen. SpaceX seems to be one of the exceptions.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Well, you know throw some “climate change” and a few more Model S while promote a trip to Mars.

  • SkyHunter

    I like the analogy of a high tax on fruits and vegetables, and a low tax on tobacco. The same disincentive applies to sustainable agriculture.

  • Jacob

    I wish Musk would obsess over developing nanomedicine rather than trying to colonise Mars.

    Antibiotic resistant bugs are already here and will soon take us back to the medical dark ages.

    • You expect Musk to tackle food safety, too?

      • Jacob

        Not sure what food has to do with tuberculosis.

        What is the point of going to Mars if living on Earth becomes hell due to antibiotic resistance.

        • Jacob, I was referring to all of the investigations Consumer Reports has done on antibiotic resistant bugs in beef, pork and poultry raised on factory farms, were human antibiotics are used to speed growth or cut down on disease.

          • Jacob

            No wonder so many kids growing up in USA have autism!

            There was a Canadian or American documentary on what causes autism and it is basically caused by an overuse of antibiotics during the crucial years of a kid’s life.

          • I don’t put any credence in that. Cheers.

          • Jacob

            Yep. Best just to avoid organic food and eat food pumped with antibiotics.