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Tesla shows transitioning to 100% clean energy is $4 trillion cheaper than staying on fossil fuels

a close up of the Tesla logo on the back of a silver car
Image credit: Austin Ramsey // Unsplash

Last Thursday Tesla published part 3 of its “Master Plan” to save the world.

According to the electric automaker, we could reach full-scale sustainable energy in just six steps: 1) repower the existing grid with renewables, 2) of course, make the switch to electric vehicles, 3) switch to heat pumps in both residential and industrial, 4) electrify high-temperature heat production needed for industrial practices like steelmaking, as well as hydrogen production, 5) sustainably fuel boats and planes, and 6) manufacture the sustainable economy.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Tesla’s Elon Musk says this seemingly short laundry list of steps will tally up to $10 trillion worth of changes. However, that’s much less compared to the $14 trillion he claims sticking with fossil fuels will cost.

“Earth will move to a sustainable energy economy,” the billionaire CEO said at last month’s Tesla Investor Day in Austin, Texas. “And it will happen in your lifetime.”

The event faced some critiques for the lack of specifics surrounding Tesla’s upcoming lineup — considering Musk hails the company as the future of a renewable way of life — but while the majority of Investor Day was dedicated to, in Musk’s words, “investing in the Earth,” Master Plan Part 3 also had some holes.

“There is a clear path to a sustainable energy on Earth,” Musk said at the event. “It doesn’t require destroying natural habitats. It doesn’t require us to be austere and stop using electricity and sort of be in the cold or anything.”

According to Tesla’s presentation, achieving each of the six key steps will result in a respective amount of fossil fuels reduced, as shown in the presentation slide below.

Image Credit: Tesla

While $10 trillion sounds like an unfathomable amount of money, the Master Plan calculates that its only 10% of the world’s 2022 GDP, which according to the World Bank in 2021, was over $96 trillion, with the U.S. making up over $23 trillion of that.

The Master Plan goes on to crunch more numbers, from the amount of energy storage, renewable power, and land use needed, which it calculates will only be 0.21% of the world’s land. However, the most eye-catching number is the big “ZERO” it places next to the amount of “insurmountable resource challenges,” it predicts. Despite the white paper’s optimism, it doesn’t detail these challenges, the geopolitical, social, and legal requisites of its steps, where this 0.21% of this land area will be, or importantly who will pay for it.

Despite its shortcomings, it serves as a reminder that making the switch to clean energy will ultimately cost the world much less than continuing to pour money into oil and gas.

While it doesn’t pinpoint how that $10 trillion will be raised, Musk argues that with global backing, making the complete switch to clean energy is possible within the next two decades.

“Over 20 years, it would be 0.5% of the global economy,” he told investors. “So this is not a big number.”

Under Musk’s scenario, the world’s metal sector would see a major boom, with huge demand to produce the nickel, lithium, copper, and other materials to be used in batteries and clean-energy equipment, leading to spending $502 billion on mining capital expenditure and $662 billion on refining.

But these aren’t the only investments needed. In Elon Musk’s vision for the green world, the $10 trillion would also be broken down into funding for a massive build-out of solar power, wind turbine, and vehicle factories, battery and thermal manufacturing facilities, heat humps, carbon capture plants, and hydrogen storage just to name a few.

According to Bloomberg’s assessment of the white paper, at peak levels, the world would need to dig up 3.3 gigatons — or 3.3 billion metric tons — of the earth annually to obtain the necessary metals to transition to cleaner power sources. While there is debate over whether or not the world has the resources necessary for all of these critical minerals, increasing research shows that we have more than enough, though the environmental and social ramifications of such a massive venture will have to be attested for.

Nevertheless, the amount required is lightyears less than the 15.5 gigatons currently extracted annually for fossil fuels.

On top of a speedy ramp-up of clean energy manufacturing and mining, Tesla’s Master Plan also details some changes to the way we make renewables, including using recycled metals for industrial uses, harvesting solar panels and wind turbines for reuse, as a handful of companies are already exploring, and phasing out some materials, such as silver in solar panels and replacing it with copper, using artificial graphite in batteries, and halting the use of rare earth metals in wind turbines completely.

While research shows that when it comes to raw materials like aluminum, steel, and rare-earth metals, we likely have more than enough for the transition, finding ways to use less and harvest more sustainably would increase the likelihood of having them for years to come, far after our 2030, 2050, and 2100 climate goals.

“This paper finds a sustainable energy economy is technically feasible and requires less investment and less material extraction than continuing today’s unsustainable energy economy,” Master Plan’s authors wrote in the report.

“While many prior studies have come to a similar conclusion, this study

seeks to push the thinking forward related to material intensity, manufacturing capacity, and manufacturing investment required for a transition across all energy sectors worldwide.”


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