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.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.