Max Chafkin has the honor of being the first journalist to ever tour the Tesla Gigafactory in the company of Elon Musk. Chafkin writes for Fast Company and has recently completed a feature article looking back at Musk’s life from PayPal to Tesla Motors. On the ride from Reno to the Gigafactory, Musk warned him the scale of the place would be overwhelming. “It will blow your mind. You see it in person and then realize, ‘This is big’.”
Musk wasn’t kidding. The place is enormous in a way that defies description. It is so long, it has to be broken up into four distinct structures with four different foundations so that an earthquake won’t destroy the whole thing. Right now, it comprises 1.9 million square feet of space, but that is just a fraction of what it will be when completed in 2020. Originally planned to have a total of 10 million square feet, Chafkin was told by company executives during his visit that the completed size has been increased 40% to 13.9 million square feet. The building will be so huge, astronauts in the International Space Station will be able to see it with the naked eye.
Why so large? “One hundred thousand is roughly the limit,” Musk says, referring to the maximum number of cars Tesla could make each year if it bought all the world’s batteries. But that is only 1/5 of his goal. “So it’s either build a whole bunch of little factories or one big factory. And a whole bunch of little factories sounds like quite a bother. Why not just have one big one and maximize your economies of scale?” Why not, indeed. Those economies of scale are what will make the more affordable Model 3 possible.
Chafkin suggested he could have just contracted for the number of batteries needed with principal supplier Panasonic and let them worry about building the factory. “It’s hard to convince people from consumer industries that you’re going to make 15 times as many cars as you’re currently making,” Musk told him. “That sounds pretty implausible. We just had to say we’re going to do it, and you’re either on the ride or you’re not.”
Chafkin then asked Elon about why Tesla is getting so deeply involved with home and industrial storage batteries. Musk looked at him like he might have somewhat diminished intelligence. “The goal has not been: Let’s make cars,” Musk says. “The goal has been: We need to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy.” He thinks using solar power to charge batteries during the day so people and companies can use that energy later when the sun goes down is a no brainer. “It’s pretty obvious really,” Musk says. “In fact, that’s what my 9-year-old said: ‘It’s soooo obvious! Why is that even a thing?’ ”
But Musk’s commitment to sustainable energy goes deeper than that. “I think people should be a lot more worried than they are,” he says, while explaining that the damage from high carbon dioxide levels won’t be felt until at least 2035. “Life will continue, but it will be a train wreck in slow motion,” he says. “Millions of people will die; there will be trillions of dollars in damage—that sort of thing.”
To keep that from happening, Musk looks back at the Gigafactory taking shape around him and says, “We’re going to need probably, like, 10 or 20 of these things.” But why him? Who appointed Elon Musk the savior of the planet? “Somebody’s got to,” he shrugs.