One 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