Elon Musk & SolarCity: How does he contribute?

Elon Musk & SolarCity: How does he contribute?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

What do Elon Musk, SolarCity and Burning Man have in common? The answer is illuminating for those seeking climate friendly solutions to our energy needs.

Elon Musk is well known in Silicon Valley as founder of luxury electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors and SpaceX, the space transport company. But what’s less known is Musk’s contribution to SolarCity, the solar installer and energy efficiency auditor. Not only did Musk inspire the creation of the San Mateo based solar company, but he’s working closely with the founders on a futuristic clean energy storage solution, coupling lithium-ion batteries with rooftop solar power.

When you discover that SolarCity cofounders, Lyndon and Peter Rive and Elon Musk are first cousins, such ambitious collaborations make more sense, but where does the inspiration come from and how does Musk have the time to keep all these projects moving forward? SolarCity’s Lyndon Rive shared some family insights in a recent Fresh Dialogues interview.

Last week, SolarCity company confirmed that it’s working on stage two of a collaboration to couple Tesla lithium-ion storage batteries with SolarCity’s residential and commercial PV solar arrays. Stage one involved $1.8 M funding from the California Public Utilities Commission to fund a research program in 2010. Stage two seeks to commercialize the program on a modest scale, with over 7o applications pending under the California Public Utility Commission’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), which provides incentives for distributed energy generation. The strategy seeks to leverage funding from the federal investment tax credit (ITC) for clean power and subsidies from SGIP, up to 60% of the system cost.

Although the subsidies have yet to be approved, CPUC Information Officer Andrew Kotch said “this emerging technology has a great amount of potential to contribute towards California’s climate and energy goals,” according to Gigaom’s .

As Chairman of SolarCity, Elon Musk  is not involved in the day to day running of the solar company but CEO Lyndon Rive admits that his cousin only contributes “maybe two hours a month” to the company – by phone – and three hours a quarter for board meetings. Not many minutes to have a significant impact on a company, for your average chairman. But Musk appears to have a rare gift for strategy.

“Elon is a phenomenal genius,” says Rive. “So when he gives you the time and you lay out the plan, he can quickly identify the hole in the plan… this is the true definition of quality vs quantity. .. you can fix whatever potential pot-hole you might run into, just in a ten minute discussion with Elon.”

So you can only imagine the ambitious discussions Musk and Rive had in 2004 on a road trip to Burning Man, the weeklong cultural event held annually in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. It was en route that Rive shared his desire to do something that had a larger environmental impact (than enterprise software) and Musk “came up with the initial idea” for SolarCity.

Burning Man has been described as a seven day experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance and culminates in the burning of a wooden effigy.  Perhaps it was the profusion of attendees using free standing solar panels to power their RVs; the atmosphere of radical creativity or witnessing all that carbon going into the desert air, but whatever sparked the conversation has had profound impact on the US solar market. SolarCity has the largest share of solar installations in the US and is growing so rapidly, it’s hiring four new employees a day nationally, 10 a month in the Bay Area. Rive’s ambitious goal is world domination in the energy market, no less.

Burning Man may yet become the Mecca for clean tech entrepreneurs as well as the counter culture set; a journey worth emulating for other entrepreneurs seeking clean tech solutions to the world’s energy needs. Past attendees from the business world include Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Google C.E.O. Eric Schmidt.

For more Fresh Dialogues interview with SolarCity click here