Explaining Southern California's economy

Is Elon Musk the new Steve Jobs? Not according to Musk

Tesla Worldwide Debut of Model X

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):

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Solyndragate: Picking winners will always be risky business

There's now pretty much a frenzy of Monday-morning quarterbacking going on with the Solyndra controversy. It boils down to essentially two core positions:

  • Solyndra was too risky a bet for the DOE to pony up a $535-million loan guarantee. The Atlantic's Megan McArdle has been grappling with this one, in strenuous detail, while somewhat evading the question of whether Solyndra needed to spend as much money as possible in a short period of time, to both achieve economies of scale and outrun a collapse in the price of silicon (Solyndra's solar panels didn't use this material).
  • Solyndra was a risky bet, but in the face of $30 billion in Chinese solar investment, the U.S. needs to leverage its innovation advantage to capture its share of the solar market. The government needs to subsidiize some of the risks and be willing tolerate failure in and effort to build up a new Green energy sector. I'm on this side, as is Wired's Jonah Lehrer and the New York Times' Joe Nocera. 

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Solyndragate: The problem with solar isn't growth, it's scale

At KPCC's Pacific Swell blog, my colleague Molly Peterson has a snappy take on the aftershocks of Solyndragate: SolarCity isn't likely to get a $274-million DOE loan guarantee is was counting on to install solar panels at more than 100 U.S. military bases.

In the post, she refers to a memo that was sent out by the Sierra Club, supporting the solar industry. Here's a taste:

Earlier this week, The Solar Foundation, in partnership with GreenLMI and Cornell University, released its National Solar Jobs Census 2011.  The Census reported incredibly impressive growth in the solar industry – nearly 7% from August 2010 to August 2011.  The solar industry’s growth is even more impressive when compared with the fossil fuel energy industry, which shrank by 2%. 

No one disputes that the solar business is growing. But as Solyndra found out, growth isn't always enough. You also need scale. Because without scale, you're going to have much more trouble attracting high levels of outside investment — enough to match the many billions that governments like China are throwing at their solar industry. And in Solyndra's case, you need to ramp up sales to the point where you can overcome falling prices driven by Chinese manufactures flooding the market with cheap solar panels. 

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Solyndra-gate and the reality of Green investment

I went on KPCC's AirTalk with Larry Mantle this morning to talk about the Solyndra bankruptcy and what's turning into something of a scandal. This was hot on the heels of the Atlantic's Megan McArdle and Reason's Tim Cavanaugh going after not just the politics of this sucker, but also the very notion that the Federal government should be investing in renewable energy in the first place. 

Just for background, Solyndra got a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2009, four years after it was founded and well into an application process that was initiated under the Bush administration (Grist has the blow-by-blow on all this). Prior the the DOE loan, Solyndra had raised venture funding; after the DOE loan, it raised even more, eventually amounting to $1 billion. Post-bankruptcy, the Washington Post reported that the White House had been edging the DOE toward an approval, so that Joe Biden and DOE head Stephen Chu could schedule appearances. And just to make things extra juicy, a big Obama supporter and "bundler" of campaign donations, George Kaiser, has a venture fund that was heavy into Solyndra.

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