Driving Directions: Getting There Green

A Gulf Coast Solar Lifeline, Courtesy of Elon Musk, Tesla and SolarCity

The first of $10 million in solar power equipment charity is going to South Bay Communities Alliance, in Coden, Ala., where Hurricane Katrina destroyed 700 homes.

There probably aren't too many Tesla Roadsters in the hardscrabble Gulf Coast fishing community of Coden, Ala., which has been hit hard by the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Battered pickups may be the transportation of choice in unincorporated towns that, according to Zach Carter, an organizer for the South Bay Communities Alliance, crab prices were cut in half by the BP spill (when there were buyers at all), and they're still waiting for federal HUD money to rebuild more than 700 local homes damaged by Katrina.

Ana Chau of Bayou La Batre is one local resident who had her life ripped apart by Katrina, as this video attests:

But the fact that Tesla has sold 1,400 of those $109,000 cars is one reason they're celebrating on the Gulf Coast today. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, has teamed up with California-based SolarCity to deliver a 25-kilowatt solar system, with battery backup, for the roof of the Alliance's Hurricane Response Center, which serves as a community center and emergency shelter in Coden.

The solar system ensures that even when the rest of Coden loses power in a storm, the lights will be on at the response center. In its first day, it produced 102 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and Carter estimates it can provide 90 to 100 percent of the center's electricity needs (offsetting a $500 monthly bill).

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The solar array, which has a 2,500 amp-hour battery system, was funded by the Musk Foundation, with SolarCity providing the installation at cost. Tesla and SolarCity aren't just friendly-they're family. Elon Musk is the chairman of SolarCity's board and owns a quarter of the company. And he and Musk are first cousins, growing up together in Pretoria, South Africa.

From left: Community organizer Zach Carter, board member Stephanie Bosarge and Paul Nelson, executive director of the South Bay Communities Alliance (SBCA photo)

Both cousins were and are entrepreneurial. Rive came to the U.S. in 1998 and built up a company called Everdream, which was acquired by Dell in 2007. Meanwhile, cousin Elon was doing fairly well here, too, having created online payment company Zip2 (sold to Compaq/Alta Vista in 1999 for $307 million) and then PayPal (sold to eBay for $1.5 billion just three years later).

Musk, in an interview said that Lyndon and his brother Peter Rive (also a SolarCity executive) "are two of my closest friends, and I have a lot of respect for their abilities. Mostly I show up at their board meetings and they tell me the good news."

SolarCity wants to bring affordable photovoltaics to the masses. It's currently in 1,000 communities in five states (California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Oregon) but plans to expand to the east coast soon. According to Rive, SolarCity's basic approach is the no-money-down 20-year lease, which allows consumers "to make no investment and start saving money on their electric bills from year one."

The partners looked long and hard for a community that would be deserving of its solar gift, and eventually went with a tip from the White House about Coden. Musk said the foundation expects to make $10 million in solar donations. "We're looking mostly at the U.S.," he said. "We had also considered Haiti as a good option, but we found difficulties getting the system into the country without getting impounded."

Rive is very bullish on solar, though admitting it is far less than one percent of the electric grid in the U.S. today. "The potential is massive," he said, "but solar adoption has been stymied by the upfront costs. Solar leasing is taking that objection out. We're seeing our installations double."

Solar is often seen as tomorrow's technology (like hydrogen fuel cells for that matter) but Rive thinks it can be our primary source of power moving forward, greening a grid that is 50 percent coal today. He estimates that solar will actually be cheaper than other sources of power within two to three years. He'd get an argument from energy traditionalists-the Department of Energy still sees oil and coal as powering the grid and transportation system for decades to come.

For his part, Musk says it might take until the middle of the century for the grid to be dominated by solar, in a mix with wind, geothermal, hydro and probably nuclear. "Traditional sources will take a long time to taper off," he said.

Even without sunlight, Coden's system can keep supplying power for two days, courtesy of that huge battery backup system. "We had 300 people at the dedication ceremony last week," Carter said. "It was a grand day, very uplifting."


SolarCity's installation in Coden produced 102 kilowatt hours the first day. (SolarCity photo)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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