Elon Musk

It’s been barely a week since I wrote about SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk. But here I am again writing about Mr. Musk. He recently made some claims about renewable energy that must be challenged.

I actually think that nuclear fission, if it’s in location that is not subject to natural disasters like in the case of France, there’s a very high percentage of nuclear, I think that’s actually a good thing. Obviously, you don’t want to have nuclear fission power plants in places that are subject to natural disasters because that obviously can go wrong. I think fission is a good approach.

I agree with Musk that fission is a good thing. However, I am unaware of any place on earth not subject to natural disasters. Is not France subject to natural disasters? Does he really mean earthquakes and tsunamis when he says “natural disasters”? Is this just a cryptic reference to Fukushima?

Fusion is also interesting and it’s exciting to see what’s happening with ITER Project, which is a fusion plant that’s being built in France. I do think fusion is a feasible technology. I think we can definitely make fusion work, but it is a far off technology. So to make fusion at the power plant level work is probably, I don’t know, 30 years away and a lot of effort.

Fusion is a chimera. Six decades and tens of billions of dollars on fusion energy and we are still decades away. Nothing will ever come from ITER. It is just a uber pork project of the EU.

Molten salt reactors using uranium and thorium were demonstrated by Oak Ridge National Labs 50 years ago. They are everything that fusion pretends to be. We need them now.

That’s why at least for now and I think maybe even in the long-term, I’m a proponent of using the big fusion power plant in the sky called the sun. The sun is a giant fusion explosion and it shows up every day. If we have photovoltaics, solar panels, we can capture that fusion energy. It also needs to be stored in a battery so we can use it at night. Then we want to have high power lines to transfer solar energy from one place to another.

Musk is correct about the sun. It delivers astronomical amounts of energy to the earth every day. However, that energy is very diffuse, diurnal and seasonal. And there is no practical way to store that energy on a level to meet the needs of a developed country.

Never mind that Musk owns companies that sell both solar cells and batteries. He has a monetary interest in claiming that both his products can meets society’s needs.

Let’s say if the only thing we had was solar energy—if that was the only power source—if you just took a small section of Spain you could power all of Europe. It’s a very small amount of area that’s actually needed to generate the electricity we need to power civilization. Or in the case of the U.S., like a little corner of Nevada or Utah would power the United States.

Musk says that a little corner of Utah or Nevada could power the US.  This is technically correct, but practically and significantly wrong. As I said before, the sun sends enormous amounts of energy to the earth, but it is spread out, doesn’t come at night and hardly at all in the winter.

Regardless of whether Musk thinks a few hundred square miles of Utah or Nevada is a “little corner” or not, how do we store gigawatt hours of electricity produced in the summer around Las Vegas and deliver them to Maine in January? The solution to that problem is not trivial and is the necessary component to Musk’s vision. And, by the way that component does not exist.

In the end Musk is just repeating the myth that renewables can power our future. They cannot. Not if the future consists of the energy use levels we currently enjoy to heat, cool, and light our homes and power our cars and deliver goods and services for our use.

Mr. Musk has been very successful in business and he is respected by many, especially young adults, but he is wrong about solar energy.


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