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Elon Musk's Solar City makes manufacturing capacity play with Silevo acquisition

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Elon Musk is well known as a private space flight entrepreneur, thanks to his space launch company SpaceX. He is also a purveyor of high end electric cars manufactured by his other company, Tesla Motors. But many people do not know that Musk has a third business, Solar City, which is a manufacturer of solar panels. Tuesday that company announced a major play to increase the output of solar panels suitable for home solar units.

Solar City has acquired a company called Silevo, which is said to have a line of solar panels that have demonstrated high electricity output and low cost. Silevo claims that its panels have achieved a 22 percent efficiency and are well on their way to achieving 24 percent efficiency. It suggests that 10 cents per watt is saved for every point of efficiency gained.

Solar City, using the technology it has acquired from Silevo, intends to build a manufacturing plant in upstate New York with a one gigawatt per year capacity. This will only be the beginning as it intends to build future manufacturing plants with orders of magnitude capacity. The goal appears to be for the company to become the biggest manufacturer of solar panels in the world.

The play is bold, considering the fact that there is an excess of manufacturing capacity compared to current demand. But Solar City is looking forward to a time in which unsubsidized solar power will cost less than grid power derived from natural gas or coal. These means building up the infrastructure to build efficient solar collection systems with batteries needed to store electricity for use at night.

If Solar City is correct in its assessment, this technology has the potential of upending the energy economy in more ways than even natural gas derived by hydraulic fracking. It would mean that many homes and small businesses would be all but free from the power grid, with the ability to maintain electrical generation even when disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes bring the grid down. It would bring to reality a kind of energy independence unknown in the current era.

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