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Originally published Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at 6:43 PM

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Elon Musk to build ‘cool-looking’ solar panels

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said he wants to build “aesthetically pleasing solar systems” to grow the solar-electricity market as he announced the acquisition of panel-maker Silevo and plans to bigger panel factories on Tuesday.


The Associated Press

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NEW YORK — The energy world is not keeping up with Elon Musk, so he’s trying to take matters into his own hands.

Musk, chairman of the solar installer SolarCity, announced Tuesday the company would acquire a solar-panel maker and build factories “an order of magnitude” bigger than the plants that currently churn out panels.

And these panels wouldn’t even look like typical solar panels, he said. Just as he drew customers to electric vehicles by making sleek, fast Tesla electric sports cars, Musk wants to attract homeowners to solar with pretty panels.

“We want to have a cool-looking aesthetically pleasing solar system on your roof,” he said.

“If we don’t do this, we felt there was a risk of not being able to have the solar panels we need to expand the business in the long term,” Musk said Tuesday in a conference call.

Musk is also a founder and the CEO of r Tesla Motors, which is planning what it calls a “gigafactory” to supply batteries for its electric cars.

In both cases, Musk’s goal is to make sure that the components critical to his vision of the future — electric cars and solar energy — are available and cheap enough to beat fossil fuels.

Musk’s future customers could ignore traditional energy companies completely. They would have Solar­City panels on their roof that would generate enough power to also charge up a Tesla in the garage. A Tesla battery could then power the home at night with stored solar power.

It’s a far-off vision — solar power is still much more expensive than conventional power, even before the enormous cost of a battery backup. And electric cars are less than 1 percent of the total auto market.

But Musk has made a career of thinking far into the future. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, the rocket company with an ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

SolarCity, based in San Mateo, Calif., is one of the nation’s largest installers of rooftop solar systems. It was founded and is now run by Musk’s cousins, CEO Lyndon Rive and Chief Technology Officer Peter Rive. The company also offers financing for solar systems, and last year it bought a manufacturer of mounting systems used to hold panels in place.

The acquisition of solar-panel maker Silevo is a risk for Musk and SolarCity because it gets the company into panel manufacturing at a time when a global glut has decimated the profits of panel-makers. Some, including onetime industry leader Suntech Power, were forced into bankruptcy. Others were forced into solar development and installations, the kinds of things SolarCity already excels at.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. SolarCity shares were up Tuesday to close at $64.53.

SolarCity says it won’t try to turn out more of the garden-variety panels clogging the market. Instead, it wants to make panels that are more efficient, and make them at a low cost in huge factories to reduce the overall cost of solar electricity. Silevo’s relatively complex panels generate more power per square foot than typical panels.

SolarCity said it is negotiating with the state of New York to build what would be among the biggest factories in the world in the next two years. It would manufacture enough panels each year to produce 1 gigawatt of peak power — roughly enough panels to outfit 200,000 homes with a typical-sized rooftop system.

That would be “just a start,” Musk said. Future factories would produce 10 gigawatts worth of panels.



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