Jordan Strauss/Getty Images for Tesla
SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks onstage during the debut of the Model X electric vehicle in Los Angeles. Steve Jobs had the black turtleneck. Musk has the black velvet dinner jacket.
SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, hit a home run last week by launching the first commercial mission to service the International Space Station. This has led some to ask if Musk might be the "next Steve Jobs" — a technological and cultural visionary who unites people across a wide range of experiences and backgrounds.
It's a tempting question to ask. I've seen it pop up on Quora, the startup question-and-answer site where I've been spending a lot of time lately hanging out and...well, answering questions (just not yet ones about whether Musk is the new Jobs). It's cropped up since Jobs' death last year and has been discussed more recently in the context of what the two men have in common.
A few months back, in connection with an article I wrote for Pasadena magazine about Musk's other company, Tesla Motors, I asked him what he thought. He was gracious, praising Jobs, but also careful to make a distinction about what he does (sorry, no link):
A Solyndra solar rooftoop installation.
In a great column titled "Here Comes the Sun," the New York Times' Paul Krugman argues that we are on the brink of a solar transformation of our energy economy. Maybe he's right. During the course of proving his point, however, he has this to say about the controversial solar startup Solyndra, which recently went bankrupt and whose funding has brought the Obama Administration under fire:
These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.
But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images
WILMINGTON, DE - OCTOBER 27: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the former GM Boxwood Plant on October 27, 2009 in Wilmington, Delaware. Fisker Automotive announced that the company is buying the plant to produce affordable plug-in hybrid automobiles. (Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Joe Biden
The Department of Energy's $535 loan gurantee to bankrupt solar startup Solyndra has become the Obama Administration's first quasi-scandal, with critics insisting that the government shouldn't be funding risky green-energy companies and supporters (myself included) arguing that the government is the only investor that can handle the risk. But now the bickering has spread beyond solar to the go-go world of electric vehicles — just as "Revenge of the Electric Car," the sequel to "Who Killed the Electric Car," is hitting theaters.
ABCNews and the Center for Public Integrity have teamed up to investigate DOE loans guarantees, focusing on two marquee EV companies, Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, which together have received about a billion in government-backed financing. The takeaway isn't pretty:
I nearly spit my coffee out when I saw this brief CNBC segment on whether the government should be acting like a venture capitalist when it comes to startup energy companies — like bankrupt, scandalized Solyndra. Eamon Javers strikes me as a good reporter, but he zipped through the question and gave me the impression that CNBC hasn't fully figured out what the Department of Energy is trying to do in the renewable energy industry
The DOE just approved two new solar-related loan guarantees, of the sort that Solyndra received (Solyndra got $535 million and drew on $527 of it before declaring bankruptcy). Mesquite Solar got $337 million and Tonopah received $737 — both as the DOE's program was officially winding down.
Both are also doing some fairly out-there stuff. The Tonopah project, according to the DOE, is a "110 megawatt concentrating solar power tower generating facility with molten salt as the primary heat transfer and storage medium. It will be the first of its kind in the United States and the tallest molten salt tower in the world." Here's a picture of what it might look like and a rundown of how it will work.
I've been going big on Solyndragate here at DeBord Report. It's a good story. It has everything: ideas about the future, money, politics, success, failure, Silicon Valley, Washington — and it's sucked in the Obama administration. It's also generated a lot of discussion and debate in the blog-o-sphere about both the specifics of the solar startup's abrupt bankruptcy and the role of government in financing green energy projects. Here's a rundown of what I've written so far:
Think the Department of Energy is bunch of meek bureaucrats? Think again. It's a den of super-venture-capitalists who have been building up the thin-solar industry in America.
When you invest in new industries, you sometimes have to swing for the fences in order to capture major returns.