Tesla taking Nevada on road to innovation

Tesla Motors has big plans, not only for the auto industry but to transform the entire energy grid, and it’s bringing northern Nevada along for the ride.

JB Straubel, Tesla co-founder and chief technical officer, described Tesla’s vision Oct. 11 to a packed house at the University of Nevada, Reno for the College of Engineering’s Distinguished Lecture Series on the topic “Building a Clean Energy Future: Tesla and Nevada.”

Tesla is recreating the automobile, the battery, the factory and the energy grid by starting the design process from scratch, with a goal of gaining freedom from fossil fuel-based energy sources.

Tesla Motors launched in 2003 with five people with a vision to make a practical electric vehicle based on lithium-ion batteries developed for laptop computers. It took five years before the first marketable product came online, the Tesla Roadster.

Although it was the first all-electric, highway capable vehicle, its design started with the standard car design, which limited its capabilities.

The design for the Model S, launched in 2012, started over “from the ground up,” Straubel told the audience of about 500 gathered in the ballroom of the Joe Crowley Student Union. “We started with no preconceived notions.”

The battery provides the platform for the entire vehicle, creating a low center of gravity, better handling and more cargo space.

Plus, the entire front trunk of the car is designed to absorb a crash. The NHTSA called it the safest car it had ever tested, Straubel said. Consumer Reports said the sedan “performed better in our tests than any other car ever has, breaking the Consumer Reports Rating system,” when it scored 103 on the 100-point scoring system.

The Model S can accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than two seconds, drive more than 200 highway miles before recharging and takes less than half an hour to fully charge.

“It can compete head-to-head with a gas car,” Straubel said.

An SUV version of the Model S, the Model X, began sales last month. It has a few new bells and whistles such as three rows of seats, a 5,000-pound towing capacity, and a new version of gullwing doors. Telsa’s “falconwing” doors require only a foot clearance to open.

To ensure its cars always have a place to recharge, Tesla is creating a chain of free charging stations along major freeways, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Asia, which buys even more Teslas than U.S. consumers, Straubel said. Many hotels, casinos and other resorts have also installed charging stations. The “Supercharge” stations can fully charge a Tesla battery in 10-20 minutes, less than the time needed to grab a meal while traveling.

The goal is to make electric cars into more than commuter cars.

The ability to take a road trip is very important, Straubel said. Having ready access to charging stations is “a game changer.” Tesla cars are currently priced in the luxury range — the MSRP is $71,000 to $127,000 for the Model S — a price obstacle the company hopes to hurdle in the next model.

“Tesla was not made to make luxury cars, but cars everyone could afford,” Straubel said. The Model III, due out in 2017, is expected to cost in the $35,000 range.

To drop the price tag, Tesla needs to manufacture hundreds of thousands of cars per year, something its plant in Fremont, Calif., can handle. “The real problem is where to get enough batteries,” Straubel said.

And that brings us to the Tesla Gigafactory under construction at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center east of Sparks. The $40 billion factory is expected to manufacture 500,000 batteries a year — more than all other lithium-ion battery manufacturers combined — by 2020.

“We’re able to achieve an economy of scale that will drive the price down on energy storage much faster than people expected,” he said. Those batteries will be manufactured in a re-created, ecologically sustainable factory environment.

“Electric vehicles are not completely sustainable if the energy source is not sustainable.” Straubel said of Tesla’s goal to make a net-zero-emissions plant to match its zero-emissions vehicles. “We have a vision to build a totally new type of factory.” Goals include purchasing raw materials as close to the plant as possible, including a recently signed agreement to buy lithium mined in Silver City, Nev.

The factory will operate mostly on solar power harvested from solar panels covering its flat roof and nearby hills. It also utilizes heat pump technology. The company chose not to run a natural gas pipeline to the site to force innovative energy solutions, Straubel said.

With the Gigafactory as one test site, Tesla’s newest venture, Tesla Energy, plans to re-create the energy grid using lithium-ion battery technology harnessed to solar power. Historically, solar power generation has been hampered by an inability to store the energy. When the sun’s not shining, solar energy is not available.

The Tesla Powerwall battery pack is a suitcase-sized unit that can be installed in a garage to store solar energy for home and office use.

The Powerpack battery stores energy on an industrial scale. The size of a large refrigerator, individual units can be connected in arrays to power factories and potentially even cities.

“We’re adjusting the way the entire grid works,” Straubel said. “We have pilot plans in Nevada.”

Tesla’s vision for a zero-emissions power source for its automobiles, factories, homes and more, is based on a concern for increasing levels of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. “It wasn’t something created in one generation and can’t be fixed in one generation,” Straubel said.

With that in mind, Tesla is involved with numerous educational programs from kindergarten through the university level to inspire and train new generations in science and engineering. The company is involved in various engineering programs including electric vehicle racing.

In 2015 the company hosted 600 interns, including three from UNR.

Straubel announced a new internship program specifically for the Tesla Gigafactory in TRIC. Involving students in the Tesla facilities brings a fresh energy that’s “a huge boon to the company,” Straubel said. “It’s hard to overstate.” He also said the company has begun posting job openings for the Gigafactory.

“We’re here to stay, we don’t want a workforce that’s imported from somewhere else,” he said. “And as many people as we can bring on board and recruit from the local community, it makes that tie even stronger.”


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