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March 15th 2017 print

Geoffrey Luck

The Ripe Aroma of BS and Musk

Master showman Elon Musk won't solve South Australia’s power crisis and knows he can’t. His intervention is strictly and transparently a ploy to promote the subsidy-soaking Tesla brand and gull a few more suckers. No wonder Premier Weatherill and PM Turnbull were so receptive

edisonOne hundred and thirty years ago, the renowned Thomas Edison (left) – then an American hero — pulled a stunt like Elon Musk, pretending to promise something he couldn’t deliver.

Edison would press a button on his desk in his Fifth Avenue office to turn on the lamp of the Statue of Liberty, five miles away. It was to show he’d found a way to transmit DC – direct current – more than a few hundred yards. But it was a lie and his demonstration was a fake.

The button sent a telegraph signal to the Pearl Street generator station on Bedloe’s Island to turn on the light. It was a publicity gambit in Edison’s war with George Westinghouse, who was promoting AC – the alternating current which eventually won, largely because it could be transmitted efficiently over distances.

Elon Musk’s offer to supply a 100MW battery farm for South Australia is no less a stunt. At a massive cost, it can do nothing to supply the state with electricity for more than a few minutes. But in the catatonia induced by South Australia’s infantile commitment to wind and solar energy production, the Musk-Tesla offer has been grasped eagerly as a portent of the future by juvenile minds. Hence the Prime Minister’s telephone call to Mr Musk.

Tesla Corporation is everybody’s darling in North America. Despite billions of dollars in government subsidies it has yet to make a profit, or produce the mass-appeal electric car it has promised.

Its US$2 billion purchase of Solar City Inc. last year was to make Tesla a fully-integrated alternative energy company, but left financial analysts doubtful. With its cars, rooftop and battery storage, plus rocket tourism and futuristic ideas of a Mars colony, investors are no longer sure whether Musk is a visionary or a financial dilettante.

A friend of mine demonstrated his Tesla Model S. The interior is luxurious, dominated by a huge central control screen. The overwhelming impression is its silence. But the boasted range of 400 kms, he explained, is very much dependent on driving style. Accelerating harshly, to achieve its phenomenal 0-100kph figure of four seconds, or driving aggressively in traffic, he is lucky to get  150 kms from the batteries.

It may be the car of the future, but there is something unreal about the Tesla. It’s impossible to escape the sensation that it’s nothing more than a laptop on wheels.

The 100MW battery pack that Musk so generously offered to South Australia is already marketed in the U.S. for commercial installations. Its technology is quite different to the Powerwalls it sells for households. It may be a useful  backup against power failures for a small business, but no American contemplates it for a suburb, let alone a state.

Elon Musk is not interested in solving South Australia’s power crisis, because he knows he can’t. His intervention is strictly a marketing ploy, to keep the Tesla name in front of the public, and head off local competitors.

It was a bluff, just like Thomas Edison’s in 1888. He took out three hundred and twelve lawsuits alleging infringement of his patent for the electric light bulb against George Westinghouse, even though the incandescent lamp principle had been demonstrated by several others before him.

In the end, he lost, just as he lost with his backing of direct current. Now Tesla cars have lithium batteries that produce direct current that has to be converted into AC to drive the small induction motors in the four wheels. And perversely, Musk is now making public statements that direct current is better and cheaper for electricity transmission. Even Thomas Edison would be turning in his grave at a marketer trying to re-design physics.

Geoff Luck is a retired ABC journalist. He worked at the national broadcaster when, on matters environmental, reporters still retained the olfactory capacity to sniff a scam

Comments [16]

  1. Doubting Thomas says:

    Bravo.

  2. Tony Tea says:

    In certain circumstances DC transmission is preferable to AC, but that does not apply to Tesla’s car.

    Interesting that the Tesla man was in Westinghouse’s camp and a huge presence in AC development. Yet the Tesla car is based on DC storage.

    I’ve been trying to think positively about Musk’s proposal, but have not been able to shake a similar notion that he is a consummate spiv.

  3. Richard H says:

    South Australia is Springfield, and Musk is trying to flog them a monorail.

  4. ianl says:

    > ” … a 100MW battery farm”

    As Geoff points out, this is infantile. Even taken at face value, the measurement means 100MW in 1 hour. Draining flat out like that gives a charged life of a few hours, *but* SA base load is of the order of 2GWh, that is 2000 MW each hour – about 20x the ability of the proposed battery pack to deliver and so draining the pack in 3-4 minutes. Even 20 such packs will drain under that full load in a few minutes. I’ve seen screamy-yellies about how that won’t happen as the wind always blows somewhere. The SA experience is that dead calm to only a few % of installed wind capacity occurs about 70% of the time over time. Without hydrocarbon backup, water/sewage/fuel pumps, ATM’s, supermarket refrigeration, high rise lifts all stop dead then. Hospitals and other critical services are already required to have diesel generation as backup.

    “Gas” in this context is actually methane (CH4). It forms water, CO2 and releases heat when burnt in air. Despite the spin about methane generation being way more efficient than coal generation, state-of-the-art USC coal plants are 90-95% of the efficiency at much less cost, ie. equivalent emissions without busting budgets.

    The MSM, as despicable as always, constantly present as completely ignorant of any of this and completely unabashed by its’ technical/engineering illiteracy and mathematical innumeracy. Release after release of “news” concocts wide-eyed WOW’s over a figure such as 100MW – such a very, very huge number (!). Don Aitkin once asked, not rhetorically, how did we get in this mess ? The answer is that most of the populace is scientifically illiterate, as is most of the MSM, and has absolutely no intention of changing that. Rupert M once opined that there was no requirement for the MSM to educate the populace. He’s right of course, so it doesn’t. Such populaces are easily confused.

    • Warty says:

      Thanks Ian, as one of the scientifically illiterate, I found your response both informative and ‘grounding’. After the turbo-charged blissful state I found myself in having first heard about Musk and his 100MW battery farms, both your response and Geoffrey’s article had the effect of bringing me crashing down to earth. I wonder if Scott Morrison will give me a sniff of his lump of coal?

  5. Matt says:

    Sorry Geoffrey, but you’ve fallen into the same trap as many, many other writers and commentators on the subject of energy. Musk’s statement about a 100MW battery system is akin to stating that he will supply a car that will travel a distance of 100km/h or stating that it can travel at a speed of 100km. The units make no sense whatsoever. The statement is meaningless. This alone is grounds for charlatan Musk to be given a severe flogging in the public square — not a call from the PM. My advice is that when the subject of energy arises, best to steer clear unless you have spent time at university studying the subject and least have a deep and meaningful relationship with the measurement units.

    • Warty says:

      It seems our Don Quixote PM operates from emotional responses rather than reason, as witnessed in his Don Dale Royal Commission response, and again his need to jump in and steal a march on Weatherill, and do a deal with the Musky fella.

  6. PT says:

    Musk made his money with PayPal. A great idea to be sure, but not a scientific or engineering breakthrough. With SpaceX, he stands to cash in on US requirements for manned orbital missions that Obama has now forbidden NASA to develop. Tesla? Well that’s an investment in banning petrol. A long term payoff may be, but he needs short term rent seeking to keep the share price up. Technology development may render Musk’s investment obsolete.

    Look at Alan Bond’s Skylon proposal. Potentially better technology. But do you want an artificial timeframe?

  7. Jody says:

    I’m still waiting for the Multi Function Polis.

  8. Ian MacDougall says:

    It may be the car of the future, but there is something unreal about the Tesla. It’s impossible to escape the sensation that it’s nothing more than a laptop on wheels.

    Well, that proves it then. It’s a total fraud!
    A laptop on wheels! And they try to kid us it’s a car?????
    Ah well. Looks like Tony Abbott was right. We have a future, and it is coal; spelt C-O-A-L.
    And we will have a future in front of us as long as that f***** carbon is out there, setting the pace.

  9. Meniscus says:

    Weatherill and Tesla get taken apart nicely here: https://themarcusreview.com/2017/03/15/i-cant-love-you-in-the-dark/

    This whole saga has become a sick joke. Will South Australians really vote Labor in for another for years in a year’s time?

  10. Ian MacDougall says:

    Marcus would not know his anal sphincter from his elbow. Followed that link; wasted download.
    Everything tends to relate to everything else in this modern world.
    An essential component of our Future-As-Coal (Abbott) is a denial of the physics and chemistry of carbon and its prize heat trapping compound, carbon dioxide [CO2]. This necessitates a politically-driven revision not only of the Periodic Table (never really liked it much, anyway) but also of the equations of quantum physics.
    The Holy Fathers of the Mediaeval Church had it right: science must cater for the political needs of whoever is in power at the moment. The Earth is at rest, right at the centre of the Universe, and all the stars and planets revolve around it.
    Absolutely essential if heretics like Galileo Galilei were to be silenced. But somehow, he slipped through the net.
    Well, the net will just have to be tightened, and its many holes repaired…
    But the Earth moves, and carbon dioxide traps heat. Those in office ignore those facts at their peril.

  11. 8272 says:

    It is correct and meaningful to refer to a generator as having a capacity of 100 megawatts as this is the amount of energy it can produce on a continuing basis, as long as it is fed with gas, coal or even nuclear energy.

    However, it is quite meaningless to refer to a battery storage system (or any storage system) in terms of megawatts. A storage system can only operate for such time until its stored energy is depleted, hence its capacity is measured in kilowatt hours or megawatt hours. A 100 megawatt-hour battery system, for example, would provide 100 MW of energy for one hour, or 50 MW for two hours, and so on.

    If Elon Musk is proposing a battery storage system for SA, he must define it in terms of megawatt hours for his project to have any sensible meaning.