Fast Company’s Max Chafkin is the only journalist who has had a tour of the sprawling, NetZero Tesla Gigafactory by Elon Musk, personally. On the ride to the factory from Reno, Musk told him the scale of the place is overwhelming. “It will blow your mind,” he tell Chafkin. “You see it in person and then realize, ‘F*ck, this is big’.” He wasn’t kidding. Chafkin says the place is enormous in a way that defies description. It is so long, it has to be broken up into four distinct structures with four different foundations so that an earthquake won’t destroy the whole thing.
That’s how the place looks today, when it has only 1.9 million square feet of space. Tesla has announced recently that it has scaled up the completed size of its battery factory from a planned 10 million square feet to 13.9 million square feet. That will make it one of the largest buildings on earth. It will be so large, in fact, it will be 1/3 the size of a full moon and be visible from the International Space Station with the unaided eye.
Why will the Gigafactory be so huge? Part of the answer is that Tesla is not a car company that also happens to manufacture batteries. If you listen carefully to what Musk says, Tesla is a battery company that also happens to make cars.
Right now, if Tesla bought every electric vehicle battery made in the world, there would only be enough to power about 100,000 cars. His plan is to make five times that many cars — and soon. “So it’s either build a whole bunch of little factories or one big factory. And a whole bunch of little factories sounds like quite a bother. Why not just have one big one and maximize your economies of scale?” Why not, indeed? Those economies of scale are what will drive down the cost of batteries and make the more affordable Tesla Model 3 possible.
When Chafkin asked Musk why he didn’t just let Panasonic or LG Chem build the batteries Tesla needs, Musk says, “It’s hard to convince people from consumer industries that you’re going to make 15 times as many cars as you’re currently making. That sounds pretty implausible. We just had to say we’re going to do it, and you’re either on the ride or you’re not.”
Then Musk focused on some of his long term aspirations. “The goal has not been: Let’s make cars,” he said. “The goal has been: We need to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy.” He thinks using solar power to charge batteries during the day so people and companies can use that energy later when the sun goes down is a no brainer. “It’s pretty obvious really,” Musk says. “In fact, that’s what my 9-year-old said: ‘It’s soooo obvious! Why is that even a thing?’ ” It’s not surprising that a child of Elon Musk might be a fairly precocious lad.
People need to understand that Musk’s commitment to sustainable energy goes much deeper than just making world class electric cars. “I think people should be a lot more worried than they are,” he says while explaining that the damage from high carbon dioxide levels won’t be felt be until at least 2035. “Life will continue, but it will be a train wreck in slow motion,” he says. “Millions of people will die; there will be trillions of dollars in damage—that sort of thing.”
To keep that from happening, Musk looks back at the Gigafactory taking shape around him and says, “We’re going to need probably…10 or 20 of these things.” But why him? Who appointed Elon Musk the savior of the planet? “Somebody’s got to,” he shrugs.