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Despite some serious flaws, Elon Musk is still humanity’s best hope to survive

It’s impossible to like Elon Musk. He makes purposefully outrageous public pronouncements, buys a tenth of Twitter on the spur of the moment, and once called a perfectly innocent British dive instructor a “pedo person.” He wants to colonize Mars or create brain-computer interfaces or enormous near-supersonic subterranean “hyperloop” transportation networks. He forbids his workers from joining a union. He buys large sums of Bitcoin to inflate the price, then sells it.

He is also incredibly wealthy, having amassed a fortune of almost £200 billion. While pooping, he tweets. All of this makes him a contentious figure, among other reasons. He has definitely accomplished great things, but is he good or harmful to mankind, as measured by the internet? Cards on the table: I’m going to argue that Elon Musk’s contributions to human advancement have been and continue to be immense, but his negative contributions, although true, are little and insignificant in comparison.

Green energy and simple communication are critical to the world’s future, and Musk, although being vexing in various ways, has arguably done more than anybody else to advance these causes. Making the planet operate on green power is one of humanity’s major tasks for the near future. Solar and wind power are becoming more affordable by the month, which is fantastic — solar electricity is currently the most affordable kind of energy in human history.

However, fossil fuels can be stored forever and used as required, and most the energy system – particularly transportation – is not powered by electricity. As a result, developing cost-effective solutions to store power and electrify more of the economy is critical.

“Tesla has been at the forefront of the energy transformation,” says Iola Hughes, research manager at Rho Motion, an EV and battery research firm. “Other manufacturers had tried and failed: the Nissan Leaf was popular in its early days but did not kickstart an electric shift in the manner Nissan had planned.

“Tesla made a huge bet. They came in with a premium car in 2012 and began from there.” She compares the Tesla S to the iPhone, which she considers to be a desired and aspirational device. “They’ve evened the odds. Now, GM and Ford are taking a look at what Tesla has accomplished and realizing they’ve made a mistake. If they want to catch up, they will have to invest.”

“No one was talking about EVs in 2010,” says Andy Willis, CEO of Kona Energy, a British energy storage business. “It’s flavor of the month a few years later.” Tesla was a huge part of it.”

The popularity of electric automobiles has clearly grown in the recent decade, as seen by sales numbers. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), roughly 20,000 electric cars (including plug-in hybrids) were on the road across the globe in 2010. By 2020, the number had risen to more than 10 million, representing a 500-fold increase. EVs accounted for roughly 1% of all sales in the UK in 2015; they currently account for over 12% of all sales, and they’re growing quickly.

By no way is this only due to Tesla. Chinese and European governments have imposed severe pollution limitations to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, and the Chinese government has subsidized battery research and development. “It isn’t true that it would not have occurred if Tesla hadn’t existed,” Hughes adds. “However, having Tesla as a major competitor in the market has accelerated things, particularly in the United States, where Trump administration policy has been rolled back.” Four out of every five electric vehicles sold in the United States are Teslas.

“Other large automakers are beginning to roll out electric vehicles now,” Hughes adds, “but Tesla and Musk were instrumental in getting it started.”

Battery-related assault

The massive rise in electric vehicle sales has resulted in a massive decrease in the cost of battery storage, as well as a massive increase in capacity. “The price of a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of battery capacity was over $1200 (£920) in 2010 and is now under $132 (£100), so it’s reduced roughly 10-fold in ten years,” Hughes explains.

As a result, storing huge quantities of electrical energy for grid usage is now becoming economically practical. Wind and solar power, for example, are well-known for only working when the wind blows or the sun shines. That means they produce energy that no one can use a lot of the time, and they don’t produce enough of it a lot of the time, so the gap needs to be made up by fossil fuel “peaker” plants that are turned on when demand is high.

You can charge batteries during times of low demand and/or high supply, and sell them to the grid at periods of high demand and/or low supply if you can store the electrical energy. “You can utilize the solar panels throughout the day and store it and sell it when the prices are high,” Hughes adds, “and be in control of the rates when you sell your energy.” Willis’ firm has been awarded a contract to construct a 500-megawatt network of energy storage facilities throughout the United Kingdom.

Again, Musk and Tesla aren’t to blame. Government energy policies, technical advancements in business and academics, and R&D subsidies have all played important roles. But, as Willis points out, “Elon Musk and Tesla have effectively developed the battery energy storage sector internationally, in both the EV and grid-scale storage markets.” “The industry has been led by people like Musk.”

According to Hughes, the business has also been a pioneer in the field of battery technology. It began as a vehicle maker, purchasing batteries from Panasonic and other suppliers, but it now manufactures its own. It’s working on new battery chemistries – nickel-manganese-cadmium or nickel-aluminum-cadmium instead of lithium, with lower energy density but higher safety, for grid storage – and battery size, for better energy density and longer-range EVs.

They’re also working on sub-grid and grid-scale storage, such as batteries in your home that can store energy from solar panels on your roof and utilize it to charge your vehicle and light your home. “Energy storage has been quietly expanding in the background,” Hughes adds, “but it might be as significant as or greater an income source for Tesla than vehicles.”

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the economy’s electrification. We need to go off fossil fuels immediately if we want to halt climate change, which we do! This includes, among other things, making renewables economically feasible and electrifying transportation. Even if Elon Musk’s main accomplishment was to hasten the advancement of electric vehicles and battery technology by a few months, it would be enough to justify any number of cringe-worthy tweets or bizarre libels.

The last frontier is price

The cost of launching the Space Shuttle was around $1.5 billion (£1.15 billion). Nasa paid about $60,000 (£45,000) for each kilogram of cargo it sent into low-Earth orbit.

According to Casey Handmer, a former Nasa/Jet Propulsion Lab astrophysicist and founder of the startup Terraform Industries who worked with Musk, a space launch on a SpaceX Falcon rocket might cost about $60 million (£45 million) in 2019. This equates to about $2,500 per kilogram. And that’s simply the amount they demanded; SpaceX paid far less, and the price has since dropped. The Falcon 9’s cost savings stem from the fact that it is reusable and unmanned: it can land on its launchpad without the assistance of a person.

That implies you can get things into space for a lot less money, and you can create things for a lot less money and put them up there more often. “The Falcon 9 can carry less each launch than the Space Shuttle,” Handmer explains, “but it’s 100 times cheaper and they can launch it 10 times more often.”

“I’m not an expert in the technology,” Don Pollacco, an astrophysics professor at the University of Warwick, says, “but it seems me there’s nothing in it that’s rocket science.” Instead, SpaceX has leveraged existing technology to tackle difficulties by improving it when appropriate.

It, like Tesla, has paved the way for others to follow in its footsteps. Hundreds of smaller companies, including Blue Origin, RocketLab, Virgin, and others, are scrambling to compete with SpaceX, which still controls around 90% of the industry. Musk has “disrupted” the sector, according to Alan Thompson of Skyrora, a British space launch company that plans to launch its first rocket next year. Skyrora is taking a different path, developing compact, single-use rockets that can deliver climate monitoring satellites to very accurate orbits: “We view ourselves as a taxi service while SpaceX is a bus,” he says, but he acknowledges that Musk has transformed the scene. “He’s opened a whole new level of space-based economic growth,” he claims.

It’d be natural if folks didn’t consider low-cost space travel to be significant. After all, no matter how cheap it becomes, none of us will be able to afford it.

Satellites, on the other hand, play a huge role in our daily lives. They are continuously communicating with our phones. They help us get about. Pollacco declares, “I’m 60.” “I recall a time when a call to Australia cost X pounds per minute, and X wasn’t a tiny figure.” It’s no longer a paid service. For this story, I used a free internet call service to reach Handmer in California.

Handmer points out that SpaceX expected that a significant reduction in launch costs would result in a massive surge in demand. “But it didn’t happen fast enough,” he continues, “so they decided to take the market for themselves.” That’s how the Starlink project was born: a “constellation” of microsatellites that provides worldwide internet access.

Because launch costs are so low, smaller, less expensive satellites may be built. If you only get to launch a satellite every few years and it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do so, you need to make it worth your while: huge, long-lasting, and powerful. However, if you can launch dozens of times a year for a fraction of the cost, you can launch hundreds of smaller satellites without worrying about a few of them breaking down or only lasting a few years.

Currently, there are around 2,000 Starlink satellites in orbit. The ultimate goal is for tens of thousands of these to exist in different strata a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface, each measuring about a meter in diameter. They will enable continuous internet connection to anybody with a radio receiver everywhere on the Earth’s surface, at (eventually) a speed and cost per gigabyte equivalent to fiber-optic cable, which is now only accessible in a few regions and via a few monopolistic telecom companies. Handmer claims that a functional communications satellite used to cost tens of millions of dollars. “It’s now a few hundred thousand dollars, the price of a nice vehicle.” “It’s a sci-fi nightmare.” For citizens in underdeveloped countries or totalitarian regimes, it will give inexpensive, fast, and unblockable internet.

Starlink satellites will interfere with Earth-based astronomy, hence there will be a penalty. Pollacco claims that newer Starlink satellites are less reflective than older ones, and Musk plans to turn down transmissions over sensitive radioastronomy locations, which “is a nice consequence if it’s true.”

However, in today’s environment, the connection is essential. Although we gripe about the internet, it is the most significant development. Bringing high-speed internet to the whole planet will be transformational — and, of course, SpaceX makes space telescope launches much more affordable. In my passion for astronomy, I make no concessions, but marginally reduced terrestrial telescope capabilities are a small price to pay for inexpensive space travel and worldwide connectivity.

Source & Credits: iNews

What do you think?

Written by Alex Bruno

Alex is a writer with a passion for space exploration and a penchant for satirical commentary. He has written extensively on the latest discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as the ongoing efforts to explore our solar system and beyond. In addition to his space-related work, Alex is also known for his satirical writing, which often takes a humorous and irreverent look at contemporary issues and events. His unique blend of science and humor has earned him a dedicated following and numerous accolades. When he's not writing, Alex can often be found stargazing with his telescope or honing his comedic skills at local open mic nights.

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