Reality Check: Elon Musk and Manipulation

I think by now, everybody’s seen Elon Musk announce the Tesla battery.  It’s a big ugly thing that will store power.  It’s definitely interesting, but he annoyingly uses alarmist environmentalist lies to sell the product.

Here’s the first lie, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, screen shot from the video in the link above:

Screenshot 2015-05-01 22.08.51

Looks scary, huh?  CO2 goes from almost zero in the past hundreds of years to over 1000 in just a short while!  Except he is lying in three ways.  First, he is using the unit ppm, which few people probably know.  It means “parts per million,” and is a fancy way of saying one ten thousandth of a percent.  The second lie is that the y-axis is being dishonest: it does not go from “almost 0” around 1900 to 400 “now,” it goes from well over 250 in 1900 to 400 now, or “just” a 60% increase rather than what looks like a 300% increase.  The third and most blatant lie is that the last value of the x-axis is not, as you would expect from the others, 2100 but rather 3000.  Yup, that’s right, the bit incline is not within 100 years, but within 1000 years.

Because I do things like that, I went pixel measuring and redrew the chart using ppm and fair axes.  The second version instead uses the much more familiar unit % which gives a better grasp of the numbers.

Screenshot 2015-05-01 22.26.27

From this figure it looks like we’re really past the worst instead of having the worst ahead. I also went a bit manipulatey and draw some more meaningful axes – what do the numbers look like if we instead show an entire percent on the y-axis, i.e., one one hundredth of the entire atmosphere? Or if I show the entire atmosphere?

Screenshot 2015-05-01 22.26.38

While this is more correct, it is manipulative because the atmosphere is a balance. Much more resilient than environmentalists would have you believe, but also not one that cannot be pushed.

Next, he does the standard renewable energy evangelist trick: he shows what it would take to power the entire US with solar anergy:

Screenshot 2015-05-01 22.43.36

Just this tiny dot, he says. Well, that is a huge dot, but he also says that it’s just all roofs in the US. That’s probably not entirely true, but also not a blatant lie. Anyway, it’s probably doable. Except, he’s not talking about all energy. He is talking about all electricity. Much more energy is used on transport and heating than on electricity. In fact, we could switch all electricity to unicorn dust (which I presume is the cleanest energy eliminating all emission) and still only make a reduction of around 15% of total emission.

The area would need to be roughly 8 times as big. That’s still doable, but the challenge is 8 times as hard as he makes it out to be. Now, in addition to all roofs, we’d need an area 7 times as large as that on top of it. Using some numbers for Denmark I looked up while writing about sustainable energy, every person in Denmark uses energy corresponding to 10 of Tesla’s batteries a day (Denmark uses around 223000 million kWh/year; that’s 611 million kWH/day or just over 109 kWh/day/person – the Tesla battery can store 10 kWh so I’m even being generous in the computation, and assume that we get 100% out of the battery).

Elon says we’d need 2 billion of these batteries or just over one for every 3 persons, where my computation, being pessimistic by ignoring everything about efficiency and peak usage (which is the freaking point!), estimates around 35 times that. Sure, not everybody in the world uses as much energy as Danes, but you bet your ass that if they could, they would use more to heat themselves for free in Siberia and cool themselves in Nigeria.

Let’s be generous and say we need 5 times as many as Elon says. Then it’s no longer an analogy of renewing the car park of 2 billion cars every 20 years, but rather renewing 5 times that, which at the same production capacity means renewing 10 billion cars every 100 years. Assuming the batteries never break and last longer than the average fairytale curse.

I still got exited when I heard about it – would he release a radically new battery technology that would last longer and store more power? From what he said (i.e., nothing): no. It’s just the same old stuff in a fancy package. Much like the Tesla cars look incredibly cool and work really well as long as you don’t purchase a car to drive in it, this battery looks neat and works really well as long as you either don’t want electricity or care about the environment.

The thing is, he never mentioned anything about pollution to make these or how long they last. He also never mentions storage efficiency – perhaps the power is better used by putting it into the power grid? Contrary to popular belief, we do not use more power during the night due to lighting. We use vastly more power during the day when factories are running. By storing all this power in a battery for our own use during the day instead of sending it to the nearby factory we lose a percentage of it.

It also doesn’t mention that solar power is not renewable energy. It requires rare semi-conductors that are severely limited. Science is working on replacements, but is not there yet. And solar plants do not work at 100% efficiency – look at this one tracking German solar production; the chart looks super-impressive, but it is not measuring as a percentage of energy consumption. It is not even measuring as a percentage of installed solar capacity. That means that when the chart is at 100% (which I’ve never seen it be), it’s still only at 50% electricity (ignoring peak use and all that), which is approximately 6-7% of total consumption. And Germany is more or less world-leading on solar.

So, it’s perhaps a great step, but we’d need to know much more to even know if this is a net good or bad. It is definitely not going to save us. This is at best a slight improvement for the environment – and it might not be an improvement at all, nor the best way ahead – but it is definitely a good route for Elon’s bank account.

3 thoughts on “Reality Check: Elon Musk and Manipulation

  1. Newsflash: Elon Musk is a capitalist that makes products for both people who care about the environment and those who don’t.. He’s a good salesman and knows what activists want to hear. Looking for scientific accuracy in a sales pitch is a bit of a futile action.. You know what you’re going to conclude every time 😉

  2. Of course. I just saw a whole bunch of people acting like this was the second comeback of Britney, and thought he’d actually release something cool. Tesla does a lot with batteries, and he’d teased this presentation a couple weeks ago in WSJ, so I was hoping he’d announce something actually new. A 10 times higher capacity battery. A battery that can actually charge in minutes. Something like that. The The Verge article I link says this is the best keynote ever.

    Instead, I notice the 3000 on the x-axis and intersection at 200 on the y-axis on the chart (I’m always checking for that sort of thing), I hear him correcting himself from “all power used in the US” to “all electricity used in the US,” I notice him talking about a tiny pixel without referring to the actual size (in terms like “half of one of the Dakotas but nobody cares about either of them anyway”), I hear him talking about the battery but never mentioning efficiency, peak use, or energy to make the big ugly thing. That’s not just a sales pitch, that’s standard environmentalist alarmism. It’s trying to ban dihydrogenmonoxide by saying that Hitler used it in concentration camps.

    But mostly I got really angry at the incredibly misleading chart.

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