Tesla Under Fire as Renewables Rise: China, Consumer Reports, and the Ailing ICE Industry

With major renewable energy and automotive media now obsessed with the success or failure of Tesla’s zero emissions Model 3, it’s helpful to understand the larger context in which a monumental conflict between an old, mostly dirty industry and new clean energy players is occurring. To this particular point, we should take the opportunity to step back for a moment from the day-to-day minutiae of business activities and related media campaigns to ask this single essential question:

In the present day’s ever-worsening and warming climate, what does a wise, forward-looking national energy policy look like?

Such a question may seem out of context until one considers the fact that the object of so much media and industry drama — Tesla — operates in what can best be described as a conflicted policy environment. In the U.S., Tesla enjoys a dwindling subsidy in the form of tax breaks going to purchasers of zero highway emissions electric vehicles (EVs). This subsidy was intended to incentivize zero emission vehicle adoption and thus enable the numerous health and environmental benefits that would result from taking more polluting automobiles off the road.

(One of Tesla’s main advantages has always been aspirational vision. Part of that vision involves a systemic approach to clean energy production. In one example, Tesla not only produces electrical vehicles, it owns a large and expanding global EV charging infrastructure. The future is electric and Tesla is vertically integrated.)

Such a subsidy also pushes for the replacement, ultimately en-masse, of dirtier vehicles upon which an old and thus more easy to profit from industry presently relies. And in Western democracies, this looming replacement has resulted in a number of political and media firestorms as the old industry tries to delay or deny the pathway for new energy leaders like Tesla. These old industry players — ranging from traditional automakers to fossil fuel behemoths — have managed to place barriers to electrical vehicle adoption in many regions. The upshot is a kind of energy policy (and related media) gridlock where the old industry attempts to hamstring the new, aspirational, more helpful industry at every possible turn.

In this very serious game with ultimately extraordinary consequences for everyone living on the planet, this increasingly polarized policy posture results in serious delays of an essential energy transition. It also leaves wide open the door for outside competitors to take advantage of what can well be described as western balking and intransigence at a critical moment in global history.

China’s Drive for Global Energy Leadership

For a China observing a West consumed by in-fighting and division over energy and climate futures, wise policy involves a rapid move to cut coal burning and shift to becoming a global renewable energy leader. To do this, China has funneled billions of dollars of aid and incentives to solar production, to battery production, and to electrical vehicle manufacturing. It has protected these markets, which it invests heavily in, by both tariffs and trade laws. Some of these laws encourage the transfer of technical knowledge to local companies by requiring foreign companies wishing to produce EVs on Chinese soil to partner with indigenous industry and share information.

For China, these policies are not simply altruistic. Though they will result in considerably less greenhouse gas emissions on net and help to drive the world to reduce harms from both air pollution and climate change, they are also aimed at global energy leadership and, perhaps, dominance. They grant China both moral authority and economic might that leverages the powerful economies of scale a massive manufacturing base provides. Such clear-focused policies aimed directly at both moral and strategic energy goals are largely lacking in the polarized West. And this consistent organization and follow-through produces a growing moral and economic advantage for China. For the prize of renewable energy leadership or dominance is huge — ranging in the trillions of dollars.

(China leaving the U.S. behind on green energy. This is largely and ironically due to increasingly backward climate policy promoted by the Trump Administration.)

In the global solar industry, such renewable energy focused polices have resulted in the majority of world solar manufacturing being housed in China. This development, in turn, has produced a considerable price advantage for solar panels manufactured by large Chinese facilities that can leverage expanding economies of scale.

In the U.S., this advantage has produced a flood of cheap solar panels coming from foreign shores. Such a flood helped to enable the building of a massive industry that now directly employs more than 370,000 people — which is about seven times the number of people employed by the coal industry and about double those employed in the oil, gas, and coal based electricity generation industry combined. But cheap Chinese imports have also put a big dent in direct solar manufacturing in the states. In reaction, we are now seeing a trade case that will have far-reaching impacts on the U.S. solar industry presented to the unwise and irrational Trump Administration. And it is, perhaps, the irony of all ironies that a Chinese solar manufacturer operating on American shores was one of the key plaintiffs in a case that could dramatically undercut solar adoption rates while also removing thousands of renewable energy related jobs if handled poorly.

Though China’s solar industry is well ahead, its related electrical vehicle industry is rapidly catching up. Last month (September of 2017), fully 59,000 electrical vehicles sold in China. This represents about half of all electrical vehicles sold across the world during that month. It is 80 percent more EVs than were sold in China during September of 2016. So far in 2017, 338,000 EVs have sold in China, which is a 48 percent growth year-on-year. Globally, due in part to these considerable advancements by China, it is likely that total EV sales will well exceed the 1 million mark for the first time with growth into 2018 easily likely to exceed 50 percent.

Tesla as Global Gadfly vs Ailing ICE Industry

And here we return, at last, to Tesla and its imminently controversial Model 3. For what China is doing on a massive national scale, Tesla is attempting to do through business and related capital investment alone. Tesla is a renewable energy only company — offering battery storage for clean power systems, electrical vehicles, and solar panels. And it is presently the only large western automobile and energy company to operate under an all-renewable products banner.

Tesla’s mission from jump was to attempt to spur widespread electrical vehicle production and a related renewable energy revolution. To disrupt the automobile market enough to spur the entry of serious competitors and to, through such competitive incentive, drive a global industry sea change. And the Model 3 was at the center of Tesla’s plans.

Tesla’s successful Model S and X were intended, in other words, to enable Tesla to mass produce a high-quality, lower cost, long-range electrical vehicle that, by itself, would be capable of selling 200,000 to 500,000 units or more per year. This vehicle, in turn, was meant to help Tesla produce an even lower cost, high quality EV that would be capable of selling even more.

Looking at numbers alone, it is difficult to conceptualize what such sales would mean for the global automobile industry. But digging a bit further, we find that the Model 3 represents a serious threat to a large lower-end luxury and sport vehicle market presently dominated by major ICE automakers such as GM, Audi, Porsche, Volvo, Mercedes, Jaguar, Toyota, and BMW. IF the Model 3 achieves its sales goals, well-selling vehicles like BMW’s 3 series or the Audi A3 or A4 could be decimated. Such automakers would be largely forced to react by producing high quality EVs to compete with the Model 3 and hopefully blunt some of its impact on traditional auto industry profits. Which is exactly what is now happening as we see Chevy’s Bolt, an up-ranged Nissan Leaf, and numerous other higher-quality, longer-range, lower-priced EVs on the way or already on the market.

ICE Industry Critics 

So even without large Model 3 production, Tesla has already played a major role in forcing traditional fossil fuel based automakers to react. However, the success of the Model 3 is of key importance to the speed of market transition. A less successful Model 3, for example, would take the pressure off traditional automakers — perhaps allowing room for backsliding and ICE market retrenchment. A more successful Model 3 would force more rapid responses — goading automakers not just to produce compliance EVs, but high-quality EVs capable of competing with what is likely to be an amazing vehicle on all counts.

Considering these very high stakes, it is easy to understand the present media hyper-focus on the Model 3 production ramp. And it is also easier to comprehend the cause of an emerging public war of words between major traditional auto industry stake holders and Tesla. For in the past six months we have seen CEOs from GM, Volkswagen, and others decry, mis-characterize, or otherwise seek to blunt support for Tesla’s rise.

Conflicts with Workers

Tesla, like any other company, is staffed by human beings possessed of various human limitations. And in its Herculean push for rapid expansion, Tesla is also likely driving these employees rather hard. So we would be remiss not to illuminate the sacrifices, conflicts, and casualties that are often produced in the quest to achieve lofty goals.

Musk himself operates under a puritan work ethic in which his observed or reported work encompasses 60-100 hours per week. An example which he appears to expect his employees to emulate. Given his company’s aspirational aims and the stakes involved, this serious drive is understandable. However, such an extreme work ethic has clashed with the values of U.S. unions who attempt to protect employees from over-work and all the risks of injury such a higher stress work environment entails.

This is one reason for the growing friction between Tesla and some of its employees. It is also worth noting that the UAW, which is attempting to organize workers at Tesla plants, is a political organization with deep-seated ties to the traditional ICE manufacturing structure in the U.S. So it’s also possible that motivations for union opposition to Tesla may exceed those of a traditional workplace conflict with management. One would hope, in an ideal world, that UAW workers would share the aspirational goals aimed at speeding advancement of clean energy and transportation systems while differing with Tesla management workplace practices. However, institutional knowledge of workers is presently more largely tied to the fossil fuel based vehicle production chain. And such ties represent a higher likelihood of producing traditional industry biases that are difficult to overcome.

In the absence of government leadership and communication addressing both fair workplace practices and a larger recognition of the need to re-train workers steeped in a systemic ICE production tradition, such an interests-based-conflict is probably unavoidable. And it appears that we are seeing it emerge now with the hard-charging Tesla. Such a systemic conflict with traditional institutions within the U.S. may well be just one more reason why Tesla is now planning to build a large manufacturing facility in more institutionally EV-friendly Shanghai, despite facing high tariff barriers on vehicles built there for the Chinese market.

Consumer Reports

Assaulted by traditional automakers, a large and vocal subset of institutionally biased fossil fuel based investors, and embroiled in an escalating conflict with factory workers in the U.S. while attempting to achieve aspirational and ultimately helpful goals, it is understandable why Tesla executives might feel emotionally raw when reading daily news and market reports. To these executives and to company leader Elon Musk, it is, indeed, understandable that they would feel at least some of the cards have been stacked unfairly against Tesla’s needed success.

So when Consumer Reports last week issued an expected ‘average’ reliability rating for the otherwise fantastically reviewed Model 3, it is also understandable why Tesla executives reacted with criticism of the major consumer watch-dog agency.

Overall, Consumer Reports ratings of Tesla vehicles have been mixed. The Model S, for example, received glowing ratings. The Model X, troubled at times by the complexity of its falcon wing doors, has received somewhat more qualified ratings. It is worth noting that both vehicles maintain the advantages of a drive train that is basically an order of magnitude more reliable than a traditional ICE and first in class Tesla acceleration and top-notch handling. So Model X critiques are primarily due to body design elements as reported by Consumer Reports.

That said, some EV owners have criticized Consumer Reports for what they perceive as reviews of the Model X and other EVs that do not take into account inherent EV benefits. Consumer Reports, for example, had reportedly issued a somewhat negative review of the low-cost Mitsubishi MiEV. But it is worth noting that Consumer Reports has also provided a glowing review of the Chevy Bolt EV which the agency has given top reliability ratings. So it’s unreasonable to say that Consumer Reports trashes all EVs.

Returning to the Model 3, the Consumer watchdog agency, which has yet to actually get its hands on a Model 3 for an actual review, has noted that it issued its forecast in the understanding that first model year vehicles tend to be somewhat less reliable as production kinks are addressed. Such a forecast can be chalked up to informed speculation by an expert agency that, though authoritative, is not infallible. But given the massive barrage by traditional fossil fuel industry and ICE supporters against Tesla in the Model 3 production ramp up, it is understandable why Tesla execs might be miffed by a less than stellar, if speculative, Consumer Reports announcement.

The Model 3 Tsunami is Still Coming

Despite Tesla taking so much fire and sometimes apparently over-reacting, every indication points toward a tsunami of high quality Model 3s still coming — if, perhaps, a bit slower than many of us had hoped. Production has continued to ramp up through September, though on a slower ramp than initially targeted. Meanwhile, Tesla has presently filed for VIN numbers up to 2,136 as of last week.

As we learned a couple of weeks ago, VIN numbers are not a reliable indicator of present Tesla production. However, it is still an indicator of expected production. So it appears that Musk’s Tesla is continuing to navigate Model 3 production difficulties in a highly challenging environment for the new company. Speculative reports have indicated that Tesla may be having difficulty with both parts suppliers and high speed welds for its new production of a steel-based vehicle (past vehicles were made from aluminum or other materials).

That said, even on a slower ramp, Tesla appears likely to produce at least 3,000 Model 3s by year end and in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 or more of the highly-sought-after vehicle during 2018. This expected 2018 production is still 4-8 times the likely sales of Chevy’s Bolt which entered the market nearly a year ago and has slowly ramped up to selling in the range of 2,500 vehicles per month. It also rivals, for a single model vehicle, the entire EV sales of a very EV ambitious China during 2016.

Given both the need for a rapid energy transition and for strong renewable industry leadership to be held by a western auto-maker vs a rising wave of competition aimed at new energy dominance coming from China, this is still good news for those of us who support renewable energy as a necessary solution to the problem of human-forced climate change and for those promoting American innovation and leadership alike. But we should be very clear that the global energy game is rapidly changing and increasingly complex. So, as ever, watch this space…



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