Elon Musk has no fear


Fast Company - - Contents - By Austin Carr

In his quest to wean the world off fos­sil fu­els, Musk merged Tesla with sus­tain­able-en­ergy com­pany So­larcity. Now he has to make it work.


They’re ex­cited to see what fan­tas­ti­cal in­ven­tion he will un­veil as a so­lu­tion. As he stresses the need to tran­si­tion the world to sus­tain­able en­ergy, an overzeal­ous at­tendee yells out, “Save us, Elon!”

Musk’s big re­veal: “The houses you see around you are all so­lar houses. Did you no­tice?” he says, ges­tur­ing to­ward the homes with a grin. They ap­pear to have reg­u­lar shin­gled rooftops, but Musk says they’ve ac­tu­ally been retro­fit­ted with a new prod­uct called the So­lar Roof, a po­ten­tially trans­for­ma­tive sys­tem that’s nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from a tra­di­tional rooftop—and one, he prom­ises, that lasts longer and costs less, all while gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity. “Why would you buy any­thing else?” he says. The crowd cheers.

These roof tiles are the lat­est com­po­nent of Musk’s larger plan to wean us off fos­sil fu­els. In­side the garage of each of these homes, he points out, is a Tesla ve­hi­cle and next-gen­er­a­tion Pow­er­wall, the sleek recharge­able bat­tery Tesla de­vel­oped in 2015 to store en­ergy for house­hold use. Dur­ing the day, the so­lar shin­gles can gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity and recharge the Pow­er­wall. Af­ter the sun goes down, the bat­tery takes over, pro­vid­ing power in­de­pen­dent of the tra­di­tional util­ity grid. “This is the in­te­grated fu­ture. You’ve got an elec­tric car, a Pow­er­wall, and a So­lar Roof. It’s pretty straight­for­ward, re­ally,” he says with a big shrug and a smile. “[This] can solve the whole en­ergy equa­tion.”

Musk’s an­nounce­ment is about sav­ing the planet. But it’s also about sav­ing So­larcity, the com­pany his cousins, Peter and Lyn­don Rive—who are in the au­di­ence—launched with Musk’s sup­port in 2006 to bring so­lar power to the masses. The busi­ness, an in­dus­try-ral­ly­ing suc­cess for nearly a decade, had re­cently run into chal­lenges. Its stock, once un­stop­pable, had dropped roughly 77% since its Fe­bru­ary 2014 peak. Its debt had mush­roomed to $3.4 bil­lion, sales growth had slowed, and it faced a cash crunch. Last June, Musk pro­posed that Tesla ac­quire So­larcity in a deal val­ued at $2.8 bil­lion. To­day’s event was staged largely to win over Tesla and So­larcity share­hold­ers, who would be vot­ing in three weeks on whether to ap­prove the merger.

There was a lot for share­hold­ers to think about—and even more for cor­po­rate gov­er­nance ex­perts and com­pany an­a­lysts to scru­ti­nize. Tesla’s and So­larcity’s boards and in­vestors rep­re­sent a weave of over­lap­ping in­ter­ests, both fi­nan­cial and fa­mil­ial. Six of Tesla’s seven direc­tors have clear ties to So­larcity. Tesla’s board in­cludes So­larcity’s for­mer CFO, a So­larcity di­rec­tor, and two VCS whose firms also have seats on So­larcity’s board, along with Musk’s brother, Kim­bal. Musk chairs both com­pa­nies and is So­larcity’s largest share­holder. He has taken out $475 mil­lion in per­sonal credit lines to buy more shares in So­larcity and Tesla when ad­van­ta­geous. Spacex, his aero­space com­pany, has pur­chased $165 mil­lion in bonds is­sued by So­larcity. Some an­a­lysts cau­tioned that Musk might be self-deal­ing, res­cu­ing his own in­vest­ments and his cousins’ com­pany through this pur­chase. Hedge-fund man­ager Jim Chanos, who had shorted Tesla and So­larcity, called the ac­qui­si­tion a “shame­ful ex­am­ple of cor­po­rate gov­er­nance at its worst,” a “bailout” of So­larcity that “strikes us as just the height of folly.”

Musk’s in­vestors, though, have grown ac­cus­tomed to naysay­ers. They know his ac­tions are of­ten fraught with risk, but they be­lieve in his mis­sion—and his prod­ucts. Three weeks af­ter Musk’s pre­sen­ta­tion, 85% of share­hold­ers ap­proved the Tesla–so­larcity merger, an out­come even more im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing that

the first So­lar Roof tiles wouldn’t be in­stalled on a real cus­tomer’s home for at least an­other seven months. The ones atop the Universal Stu­dios homes weren’t func­tional.

But that’s the magic of Musk. Few en­trepreneurs in his strato­sphere could make such a gran­diose pitch land so solidly. His cousins, the Rives, had strug­gled to sell a frac­tion of this vi­sion to Wall Street dur­ing their lat­ter years run­ning So­larcity as a pub­lic com­pany; Musk did it in 14 min­utes. To him, this fu­ture—in which his com­bined com­pa­nies will save us from the de­struc­tive forces of cli­mate change—is sim­ply “log­i­cal” and “quite ob­vi­ous,” phrases he re­peats to me a few months af­ter the deal closed. “It’s to­tally log­i­cal that we’ll have sus­tain­able en­ergy in the long term, be­cause un­sus­tain­able en­ergy, by def­i­ni­tion, is un­sus­tain­able,” he says. “So how quickly do we get there? And to what de­gree do we neg­a­tively im­pact the en­vi­ron­ment by get­ting there slower?”

Musk has al­ways ap­proached in­no­va­tion this way: as a mas­sive bet on the in­evitabil­ity of to­mor­row, rather than what he can de­liver to­day. He de­signs the fu­ture and wills it into ex­is­tence, de­spite the dis­be­liev­ers. Tesla and Spacex, which many viewed as the wild gam­bles of a stretched-thin en­tre­pre­neur keen to waste bil­lions of his (and oth­ers’) dol­lars, have proved more risky to bet against. This year, in fact, Tesla be­came the most per­ilous stock to short, cost­ing spec­u­la­tors bil­lions—more than the com­bined losses of those trad­ing against Ap­ple, Ama­zon, and Net­flix. In that sense, Musk has be­come the face of sal­va­tion to some, and mo­ti­va­tion to oth­ers. “BMW is us­ing a pic­ture of me to scare their ex­ec­u­tives into tak­ing elec­tric ve­hi­cles se­ri­ously. I’m not kid­ding,” Musk says. “It’s sort of a backhanded com­pli­ment.” All of this makes him the—to use his word—ob­vi­ous per­son to lead the so­laren­ergy in­dus­try for­ward: Lyn­don Rive, So­larcity’s CEO, an­nounced on May 15 that he’d be leav­ing the com­pany.

Even so, within Tesla, there were se­ri­ous doubts about the merger. “There was al­most no un­der­stand­ing for what So­larcity was in­side the broader com­pany, and that in­cludes Elon,” says a knowl­edge­able source. “They didn’t un­der­stand the busi­ness.” Yet Musk is fa­mous for mas­ter­ing in­for­ma­tion quickly, and again, who’s go­ing to bet against him? If he’s wrong, So­larcity could prove to be a se­ri­ous strain on Tesla’s re­sources. So­lar power might be an un­de­ni­able part of our fu­ture—the in­dus­try cre­ated dou­ble the amount of jobs as coal did last year and ac­counts for nearly 40% of elec­tric ca­pac­ity added to the grid, more than wind or even nat­u­ral gas—but So­larcity it­self isn’t. In its last re­ported earn­ings quar­ter be­fore the merger, So­larcity saw a 26% year-over-year de­crease in its megawatts in­stalled, a key growth met­ric of so­lar power. If he’s right, how­ever, he’ll move a big step closer to re­al­iz­ing his vi­sion for a cleaner planet.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Musk says he isn’t wor­ried. “Oh, it def­i­nitely will work,” he says. “It’s just a ques­tion of when.”

Since the ac­qui­si­tion, Musk has been reg­u­larly mak­ing the 2-mile drive from

Tesla’s fac­tory in Fre­mont, Cal­i­for­nia, to So­larcity’s R&D cen­ter to look at So­lar Roof pro­to­types. I glimpse a num­ber of de­signs my­self, dur­ing a visit to Fre­mont in April. They’re in­stalled on two model roofs sit­ting in the of­fice’s back park­ing lot, like parts of a pre­fab house wait­ing for pickup. “When we think some­thing is ready, we’ll bring Elon out here,” says Peter Rive, for­merly So­larcity’s CTO and now Tesla’s VP of so­lar prod­ucts, stand­ing out­side near the mod­els on the cloudy af­ter­noon. “He’ll tell us if it’s pass or fail.”

When seen from be­low, the tiles ap­pear to be opaque, like Tus­can or slate shin­gles. But from above, the glass cov­er­ing the tiles is trans­par­ent, al­low­ing the sun to reach the so­lar cell un­der­neath. So­larcity’s engi­neers have re­ceived feed­back from Tesla de­sign­ers to re­fine the prod­ucts, spend­ing weeks, for ex­am­ple, ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent shades of black. Musk’s re­ac­tion so far? “‘Not good enough,’ ” Peter says Musk told the team ear­lier this year. “‘Make this look bet­ter.’ ”

Musk stresses that such col­lab­o­ra­tive engi­neer­ing couldn’t have hap­pened be­fore the merger. Be­cause they were pre­vi­ously sep­a­rate pub­lic com­pa­nies (with those many con­flicts of in­ter­est), So­larcity and Tesla were re­quired to op­er­ate at an “arm’s length.” What­ever part­ner­ships they pur­sued had to be au­dited to make sure they were in each com­pany’s in­ter­est. “Ev­ery time we wanted to do some­thing, it had to go through two org com­mit­tees. It was in­cred­i­bly slow,” Musk says. “Now we can make de­ci­sions im­me­di­ately in­stead of it tak­ing a month.”

Lyn­don ac­knowl­edges that Musk, his and Peter’s older cousin (their moth­ers are twins), in­stantly brought much-needed prod­uct skills to So­larcity. “There are of­ten tech­ni­cal chal­lenges ahead where peo­ple say, ‘No, that’s im­pos­si­ble, a brick wall,’ ” says Lyn­don. “Elon is smart enough to know how to go through that brick wall, to come up with so­lu­tions to ad­dress the prob­lem. It’s very rare to en­counter some­one with his all-of-the-above qual­i­ties.”

Musk feels that aes­thet­ics, in par­tic­u­lar, will be cru­cial for So­larcity, which hopes to win over the kinds of con­sumers who might balk at in­stalling tra­di­tional so­lar pan­els on top of their houses. Af­ter all, Musk has ex­plained that Tesla grew from his view that elec­tric ve­hi­cles were “ugly and slow and bor­ing like a golf cart.” He cre­ated the Pow­er­wall, he has said, be­cause all ex­ist­ing bat­ter­ies “sucked . . . . They’re ex­pen­sive, un­re­li­able, stinky, ugly, bad in ev­ery way.” If there was one im­plied crit­i­cism of his cousins dur­ing the prod­uct event last fall, it was that they were never quite able to pull off this trans­for­ma­tion, from the use­ful to the beau­ti­ful. “The key is to make so­lar some­thing de­sir­able,” Musk said on­stage, so “you want to put it on the most prom­i­nent part of your house, call your neigh­bors over, and say, ‘Check out this sweet roof!’ ”

Musk’s tiles might prove as sexy to cus­tomers as his ve­hi­cles. Gavin Baker, who runs a $13.8 bil­lion port­fo­lio at Fidelity, in­creased the firm’s in­vest­ment in So­larcity right be­fore the ac­qui­si­tion, and he has said he’s bullish on the prod­uct. But the res­i­den­tial so­lar in­dus­try is still Byzan­tine and frag­mented, in­volv­ing things like build­ing per­mits, reg­u­la­tory road­blocks, and in­di­vid­ual roof as­sess­ments. And then there’s the is­sue of price. The So­larcity roof re­quires a com­plete re-roof­ing job, un­like tra­di­tional so­lar


pan­els, which can be mounted on top of ex­ist­ing shin­gles. Ap­ple sells its cus­tomers on a port­fo­lio of prod­ucts—iphones, ipads, Mac­books—but that same kind of in­te­gra­tion isn’t as fea­si­ble when you’re deal­ing with a $70,000 Model S, a $6,000 Pow­er­wall, and a So­lar Roof that can cost $65,000 or more.

The com­bined com­pa­nies aim to de­velop fi­nanc­ing mod­els that will make the tech­nol­ogy af­ford­able, stream­line the roll­out process (thanks to So­larcity’s army of in­stall­ers), and take ad­van­tage of Tesla’s re­tail foot­print to sell the vi­sion. While the up-front price for its So­lar Roof looks high, So­larcity as­serts that tax cred­its and the es­ti­mated value of en­ergy cre­ated over the prod­uct’s 30-year power war­ranty will save cus­tomers money in the long run. So­lar is a mas­sive mar­ket, the com­pany notes, with about 5 mil­lion new roofs built ev­ery year in the U.S. alone, and So­larcity hopes to cap­ture 5% of that busi­ness, or 250,000 homes an­nu­ally, an am­bi­tious goal con­sid­er­ing the com­pany only made 325,000 so­lar in­stal­la­tions in its decade of op­er­a­tion be­fore the merger.

So­larcity isn’t the first com­pany ever to pro­duce a so­lar tile, and most in that space have floun­dered (see “The Shin­gle Fac­tor,” page 70). But the merger with Tesla al­lows the com­pany to of­fer ver­ti­cal in­te­gra­tion, po­ten­tially meet­ing all of its cus­tomers’ en­ergy needs. “If you just cre­ated a so­lar shin­gle, you’re kind of fucked,” Peter Rive says. “I don’t think any­body but the com­bi­na­tion of So­larcity and Tesla can pull this off.”

When it was founded, So­larcity wasn’t con­cerned with prod­uct at all. The Rive

brothers—who grew up with Musk in Pre­to­ria, South Africa, and built (and later sold) an IT soft­ware com­pany in the Bay Area—were look­ing to make a big­ger im­pact with their next startup. Musk, Lyn­don re­calls, sug­gested they look into so­lar. They launched So­larcity in 2006 with a $10 mil­lion in­vest­ment from Musk.

They came up with a plan to drive costs down by con­trol­ling the ex­pe­ri­ence from sale to in­stal­la­tion (while third-party man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­vided the pan­els). They hired 150 em­ploy­ees, the ma­jor­ity of them con­struc­tion work­ers, and by the next year, the com­pany was in­stalling about 70 so­lar sys­tems per month around North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Hav­ing sold pan­els him­self in the early days, Lyn­don knew that the big­gest bar­rier to adop­tion was price: Cus­tomers sim­ply didn’t have cap­i­tal to pur­chase the sys­tem, which typ­i­cally costs up­wards of $40,000. What if they could lease it in­stead? Other com­pa­nies had ex­plored sim­i­lar fi­nanc­ing mod­els in the com­mer­cial space, but banks told them it was im­pos­si­ble to bring that to the res­i­den­tial mar­ket. “But we just kept ham­mer­ing and ham­mer­ing at it,” re­calls Lyn­don. The com­pany pi­o­neered an ar­range­ment that al­lowed it to of­fer sys­tems to home­own­ers with­out any down pay­ment. So­larcity would han­dle all the up-front costs— for the con­sul­ta­tions, rooftop de­signs, pan­els, and in­stal­la­tion—and worked with banks to help front the cap­i­tal, giv­ing So­larcity longterm re­cur­ring rev­enue. The cus­tomer would pay back So­larcity and its fi­nan­cial part­ners over the course of a 20-year lease, ideally at a monthly cost that would be lower than their tra­di­tional util­ity bill. (This fi­nan­cial model was fea­si­ble in part thanks to a 30% fed­eral so­lar tax credit, which So­larcity could claim on the value of each in­stal­la­tion.)

Busi­ness be­gan to grow, and the com­pany even­tu­ally ex­panded to more than a dozen states. Musk, who was at the time busy build­ing Tesla and Spacex, wasn’t in­volved much be­yond the board level. But the Rives—who share a pas­sion for ex­treme sports such as moun­tain bik­ing (Lyn­don also plays un­der­wa­ter hockey, which in­volves hold­ing your breath and shut­tling a puck across a pool floor)—brought a Muskian in­ten­sity to their jobs.

When So­larcity went pub­lic at the end of

2012, at $8 a share, the stock surged 47% on its first day of trad­ing, and the com­pany ef­fec­tively dou­bled its sales ev­ery year there­after. In early 2014, it boasted more than 70,000 cus­tomers, and its stock hit $86 per share, an all-time high. Lyn­don set a Musk-size goal for his em­ploy­ees: 1 mil­lion in­stal­la­tions by 2018.

Of course, as with any boom­ing startup, there was also chaos. Peter and Lyn­don were suc­cess­fully bring­ing res­i­den­tial so­lar main­stream, but the com­pany cul­ture be­gan to shift, es­pe­cially with the as­cent of two par­tic­u­larly po­lar­iz­ing ex­ec­u­tives, Tan­guy Serra and

Hayes Barnard, the lat­ter of whom ar­rived via So­larcity’s $120 mil­lion pur­chase of his di­rect­mar­ket­ing firm Paramount So­lar. The at­mos­phere, many em­ploy­ees felt, be­came testos­terone-fu­eled and sales-ob­sessed. “It was a rad­i­cal change, like the tree hug­gers got re­placed with a fra­ter­nity house,” says a for­mer sales leader, who de­scribes the sales group de­mo­graph­ics as be­com­ing more male dom­i­nated, filled with “guys who were used to sell­ing mort­gages in a boiler room.”

So­larcity had made a num­ber of smart in­vest­ments in or­der to keep its prod­uct dif­fer­en­ti­ated and re­duce costs. Serra, who over­saw op­er­a­tions, was a driv­ing force behind the com­pany’s ac­qui­si­tion of Zep So­lar, an in­no­va­tive startup that had de­vel­oped an in­dus­trylead­ing panel-mount­ing sys­tem that low­ered So­larcity’s av­er­age time of in­stal­la­tion from days to just hours. But Serra and Lyn­don also launched a dis­tract­ing ex­pan­sion into Mex­ico and ac­quired a so­lar-panel tech­nol­ogy startup called Silevo for at least $200 mil­lion, which would even­tu­ally eat up sub­stan­tial cap­i­tal at a time when so­lar-panel prices started plum­met­ing to the point of com­modi­ti­za­tion. (Serra de­clined to com­ment for this story.)

If there was one sign that the com­pany was fly­ing too close to the sun, it was, many felt, an ex­trav­a­gant sales-team hud­dle in Las Ve­gas around March 2015. In a scene straight out of HBO’S Sil­i­con Val­ley, Barnard, then So­larcity’s chief rev­enue of­fi­cer, burst onto the stage in front of Lyn­don, Peter, and 1,300 em­ploy­ees (Musk would ar­rive later) at Hakkasan night­club, rap­ping over Nicki Mi­naj and Drake’s hit “Truf­fle But­ter” while sur­rounded by provoca­tively dressed dancers. At an­other point, he ap­peared dressed as He­lios, the Greek sun god, wear­ing a green suit of ar­mor de­signed by the same peo­ple who cre­ated the Iron Man cos­tume for that movie. There was, af­ter all, much for him to cel­e­brate. So­larcity was by then the clear in­dus­try leader, own­ing a third of the res­i­den­tial mar­ket and han­dling more in­stal­la­tions than its next 50 com­peti­tors com­bined. (Barnard ex­plains that he was only try­ing to rally his troops, and strongly de­nies that the cul­ture be­came bro-y. “I don’t tol­er­ate that bull­shit,” he says.)

The com­pany’s growth rate—it was hir­ing 100 sales reps a week to help hit ag­gres­sive tar­gets—led to some du­bi­ous tac­tics when it came to mar­ket­ing So­larcity’s zero-mon­ey­down con­cept. Many sources felt that the drive to hook cus­tomers of­ten eclipsed any con­cerns about whether they would fol­low through with the lease pur­chase. “You had all these poorly


trained reps ba­si­cally go­ing, ‘Just sign here! Don’t worry, you can can­cel any time!’ ” says a for­mer sales di­rec­tor. “Peo­ple were treat­ing it like sign­ing off on itunes’ terms and con­di­tions.”

The com­pany’s av­er­age can­cel­la­tion rate in­creased to 45% or higher; its door-todoor sales team saw rates of 70%, mul­ti­ple sources say. (The SEC is re­port­edly prob­ing the lack of pub­lic dis­clo­sures around can­cel­la­tion rates in the so­lar in­dus­try. A spokesper­son for So­larcity says that rates have im­proved, and that the com­pany re­ports on “in­stalled as­sets,” rather than “pre­in­stal­la­tion can­cel­la­tion rates.”) With com­pe­ti­tion in the so­lar space in­creas­ing, So­larcity en­gaged in a pric­ing war with many of its ri­vals, a race to the bot­tom that hurt deal prof­itabil­ity.

So­larcity’s busi­ness model had by then be­come more com­pli­cated. To help fund its bal­loon­ing in­stal­la­tions, the com­pany turned to an ar­ray of in­stru­ments, such as tax-eq­uity fi­nanc­ing, bonds, and debt se­cu­ri­ties. Google, for ex­am­ple, in­vested $300 mil­lion to fund some of So­larcity’s res­i­den­tial in­stal­la­tions (in part for the as­so­ci­ated tax cred­its). “The re­al­ity of so­lar fi­nanc­ing was that most of the cash started com­ing from in­vestors like Google months af­ter in­stal­la­tion,” says a source fa­mil­iar with So­larcity’s fi­nan­cials. “We started hav­ing huge gaps in cash flow as the busi­ness grew.”

So­larcity’s stock trended down in the sec­ond half of 2015. In Au­gust, Jim Chanos, the hedge-fund man­ager known for pre­dict­ing the fall of En­ron, called it more of a “sub­prime fi­nanc­ing com­pany” than an en­ergy com­pany, com­par­ing its so­lar leases to home­own­ers tak­ing out sec­ond mort­gages. “He [doesn’t] have his facts straight,” Lyn­don said at the time, re­tort­ing that So­larcity’s cus­tomers de­faulted on pay­ments at a rate of less than 0.5%.

Lyn­don was in­creas­ingly con­sumed by a grow­ing num­ber of ex­ter­nal pres­sures. The fate of sev­eral state poli­cies that al­lowed So­larcity to op­er­ate had be­come more un­cer­tain, thanks mostly to hos­til­ity from the en­trenched util­i­ties, and the com­pany was forced to pull out of Ne­vada al­to­gether af­ter the state’s pub­lic util­i­ties com­mis­sion voted to sig­nif­i­cantly cut ben­e­fits for home­own­ers with so­lar. Worse, the 30% fed­eral so­lar tax credit was set to ex­pire. When it was un­ex­pect­edly ex­tended in late 2015, it iron­i­cally weak­ened de­mand, since some of So­larcity’s cus­tomers re­al­ized they had more time to take ad­van­tage of the sub­sidy.

With its so­lar in­stal­la­tion growth rate lag­ging, the com­pany started sell­ing Wall Street on a dif­fer­ent story. Rather than con­tin­u­ing to push for rapid ex­pan­sion, which was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly costly, Lyn­don said that So­larcity would pivot and con­cen­trate on be­com­ing prof­itable in­stead. “Look­ing at the last nine years, the strat­egy of the com­pany has all been about growth . . . to achieve scale,” Lyn­don told share­hold­ers in Oc­to­ber 2015. It was be­com­ing dif­fi­cult to keep dou­bling the busi­ness ev­ery year as in­vestors had grown ac­cus­tomed to. “With this new fo­cus, we’re go­ing to re­duce our growth rates to roughly 40% in 2016.”

So­larcity shared more dis­ap­point­ing pro­jec­tions in its year-end earn­ings re­port, posted in Fe­bru­ary 2016, and its stock dropped by nearly a third in af­ter-hours trad­ing. So­larcity had al­ways stressed that it was gen­er­at­ing long-term “re­tained value” from its leased rooftop so­lar sys­tems, which it co-owned with its fi­nan­cial part­ners. The com­pany es­sen­tially acted like a clean-en­ergy util­ity that billed home­own­ers monthly. Now, in its pivot to prof­itabil­ity, in­stead of leas­ing pan­els to con­sumers, So­larcity’s core strat­egy would be to sell them, pri­mar­ily through loans, which would lower So­larcity’s debt bur­den and gen­er­ate in­ter­est. But that also meant cus­tomers would ul­ti­mately own their sys­tems—i.e., no more monthly pay­ments. In May, Serra, then CFO, tried to ex­plain this change on an earn­ings call. Some an­a­lysts ex­pressed con­fu­sion about this seem­ingly ex­is­ten­tial shift, with one ask­ing, “What ex­actly is the busi­ness model of So­larcity?”

“This is a com­pany that I re­gard in a first-class cri­sis that acts as if ev­ery­thing is fine,” TV an­chor Jim Cramer said on CNBC af­ter­ward, call­ing it “the worst con­fer­ence call of 2016.” In Fe­bru­ary 2016, Musk called Lyn­don and sug­gested it was time they com­bined their com­pa­nies. The pre­vi­ous spring, Musk had made a splashy an­nounce­ment for the Pow­er­wall, a bat­tery stor­age prod­uct that he called the “miss­ing piece” in the frame­work that would rein­vent how we con­sume en­ergy along­side elec­tric ve­hi­cles and so­lar pan­els. Tesla be­gan ramp­ing up pro­duc­tion at the Gi­gafac­tory, its vast bat­tery fac­tory near Reno, Ne­vada. But, Musk says, he quickly re­al­ized that the sales and in­stal­la­tion pro­cesses were “in­cred­i­bly clunky and awk­ward.” To get a home equipped with Pow­er­wall, cus­tomers had to rely on a lo­cal, in­de­pen­dent in­staller, since Tesla didn’t have a field-ser­vices team. Worse, to get it linked into so­lar, cus­tomers would have to turn to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent com­pany, such as So­larcity or one of its ri­vals. “It was like hav­ing to buy your lap­top and your lap­top’s hard drive sep­a­rately,” he says.

Musk wanted Tesla to con­trol the ex­pe­ri­ence from start to fin­ish. As it turned out, So­larcity was the real miss­ing piece. When I ask why he didn’t have that epiphany un­til Fe­bru­ary 2016—es­pe­cially given all of So­larcity’s chal­lenges—musk ac­knowl­edges that the ac­qui­si­tion should have been done “prob­a­bly a year or two ear­lier.” It had be­come “quite ob­vi­ous” where things were headed, but, in his telling, Tesla be­fore sim­ply had “too much go­ing on.”

No for­mal of­fer was made on that Fe­bru­ary phone call, and they agreed to di­gest the idea be­fore mov­ing for­ward. Musk brought the idea to Tesla’s board at the end of Fe­bru­ary. Ini­tially, the direc­tors re­jected the pro­posal: They felt it would strain re­sources, par­tic­u­larly as Tesla was deal­ing with man­u­fac­tur­ing chal­lenges with its Model X. (Sep­a­rately, a month later, Spacex pur­chased $90 mil­lion worth of bonds from So­larcity, a move that re­port­edly raised eye­brows in Wash­ing­ton, with some law­mak­ers con­cerned that Musk was us­ing his aero­space ven­ture’s high-priced gov­ern­ment con­tracts to buoy his so­lar com­pany.) It wasn’t un­til May, when the

board felt Tesla’s pro­duc­tion is­sues were mostly re­solved, that Musk raised the no­tion again. Tesla main­tains that no­body at So­larcity or on its board, in­clud­ing the Rives, had any idea that Musk was con­tin­u­ing to push for an ac­qui­si­tion dur­ing this time.

On June 20, Tesla’s gen­eral coun­sel emailed So­larcity’s lawyers an of­fer val­ued at $2.8 bil­lion. Nor­mally, ac­qui­si­tion bids and due dili­gence are han­dled in pri­vate, but be­cause of the con­flicts of in­ter­est, Tesla had to dis­close its in­ten­tions pub­licly be­fore So­larcity could con­sider the of­fer, a process one source in­volved calls “dead-ass back­ward.” In a blog post, Musk de­scribed the plan as a “no-brainer,” but in­vestors had yet to be con­vinced, and Tesla’s stock dropped roughly 10% on the news. Con­fu­sion around the pre­deal an­nounce­ment and whether the merger would go through led So­larcity’s fi­nan­cial part­ners to tem­po­rar­ily freeze its cap­i­tal, cre­at­ing a $200 mil­lion monthly hole in its cash bal­ance, al­ready one of the more wor­ri­some parts of So­larcity’s fi­nan­cials. In an early Au­gust story about the deal, Wall Street Jour­nal colum­nist Spencer Jakab noted that So­larcity burned through a “whop­ping” $6 of cash for each dol­lar of rev­enue in the past year, while Tesla burned through 50 cents. “Tesla latch­ing on to So­larcity is the equiv­a­lent of a ship­wrecked man cling­ing to a piece of drift­wood grab­bing on to an­other man with­out one.”

To help per­suade an­a­lysts and share­hold­ers, Musk hopped on So­larcity’s Au­gust 9 earn­ings call to talk up the deal’s mer­its. He tan­ta­lized them with a big new “so­lar roof” prod­uct the com­pany would re­veal soon. “What if we can of­fer you a roof that looks way bet­ter than a nor­mal roof? That lasts far longer than a nor­mal roof?” he teased. “Dif­fer­ent ball game.”

In­ter­nally, how­ever, the prod­uct was nowhere near what Musk con­sid­ered mar­ke­tready. Ac­cord­ing to nearly a dozen sources, later that month, Peter Rive and the head of Zep So­lar, the sub­sidiary that de­vel­oped So­larcity’s panel-mount­ing sys­tem, in­vited Musk to see their lat­est pro­to­type. Code-named “Steel Pulse,” it was a stand­ing-seam metal roof with so­lar in­te­gra­tion. Musk hated it—telling the team, ac­cord­ing to two sources, that they were wast­ing his time with this “piece of shit”—but he liked the un­der­ly­ing con­cept. (A spokesper­son for Tesla clar­i­fies that Musk “very much liked the idea of Steel Pulse. He sim­ply did not like the first it­er­a­tion.”) Musk asked for more “stun­ning” con­cepts, and pushed the team to­ward de­vel­op­ing a bet­ter-look­ing, glass-tiled ver­sion. Within weeks, So­larcity and Tesla teams had cre­ated the So­lar Roof demos un­veiled at Universal Stu­dios.

A month af­ter share­hold­ers ap­prove the merger in Novem­ber, I travel to Buf­falo to check out So­larcity’s new man­u­fac­tur­ing plant, which, once com­pleted, is ex­pected to be the largest so­lar-panel fac­tory in the west­ern hemi­sphere. When I ar­rive, the city is buzzing about what it could mean for Buf­falo—lo­cals talk about So­larcity as if a new Six Flags is open­ing in town—es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the re­cent an­nounce­ment of the So­lar Roof, which the com­pany will even­tu­ally man­u­fac­ture here. The fac­tory has be­come a sym­bol of op­por­tu­nity for the area. “Now that So­larcity has been merged with Elon Musk’s com­pany,” says Mayor By­ron Brown, “it truly brings the eyes of the world to Buf­falo.”

At a se­ries of So­larcity re­cruit­ing ses­sions held around the city, res­i­dents are clearly fo­cused on one thing—jobs—but they also ex­press pride in the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing a part of the fu­ture, rather than stuck hop­ing for a re­vival of in­dus­tries of the past. “I’ve been watch­ing [the fac­tory] since the first brick,” one job hope­ful tells me. “I’ve waited and waited and waited for one of these jobs to come along.”

The Gi­gafac­tory 2, as it is now called, is a 10-minute drive south of down­town Buf­falo, on an 88-acre site once home to steel mills, bil­low­ing smoke­stacks, and other totems of rust belt in­dus­try. The sprawl­ing 1.2 mil­lion–square-foot fa­cil­ity lies along a sharp switch­back in the Buf­falo River, near a freight-train yard. Across the street is a fish-and-chips shop, with a Lon­don­style tele­phone booth out front.

So­larcity came to con­trol the site through its ac­qui­si­tion of so­lar-panel startup Silevo, in June 2014, for $200 mil­lion in stock plus an ad­di­tional $150 mil­lion tied to cer­tain de­vel­op­ment tar­gets. The com­pany thought Silevo’s panel tech­nol­ogy could achieve “a break­through in the cost of so­lar power,” as Musk, Lyn­don, and Peter wrote in a blog post at the time. They also touted a deal Silevo had inked with the state of New York to build a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in Buf­falo, and sought to quin­tu­ple the fac­tory’s out­put. Gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo soon com­mit­ted $750 mil­lion to fund the project, on the con­di­tion it would gen­er­ate 1,460 jobs and $5 bil­lion in on­go­ing area in­vest­ments, and Musk and the Rives tar­geted an an­nual pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity greater than one gi­gawatt by mid-2016.

But the project ran into chal­lenges. The goal was to build what are known as high-ef­fi­ciency so­lar pan­els—which fea­ture pre­mium cells that can con­vert sun­light into en­ergy at a ma­te­ri­ally higher per­cent­age—at a cost on par with what So­larcity had been pay­ing to Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ers. But panel prices glob­ally were plum­met­ing, down more than 75% since 2009, and the Silevo team wres­tled with cre­at­ing an eco­nom­i­cally vi­able prod­uct. In early 2015, Silevo’s R&D team, work­ing out of an old Solyn­dra build­ing in Fre­mont, tried to de­velop a pi­lot pro­duc­tion line that could even­tu­ally yield up to 1,000 high-ef­fi­ciency pan­els per day, a process they hoped to one day repli­cate in Buf­falo. But the team strug­gled to au­to­mate the process to pro­duce more than a few hun­dred pan­els per day, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. (A So­larcity spokesper­son ac­knowl­edges that there were is­sues with man­u­fac­tur­ing.)

Mean­while, in Buf­falo, So­larcity was burn­ing through hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of gov­ern­ment fund­ing to get the fa­cil­ity built as fast as pos­si­ble. Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources in­volved, there were a se­ries of de­lays and bud­get over­runs. “Noth­ing was on track in 2015,” one says. The com­pany pur­chased more than $250 mil­lion in cus­tom ma­chin­ery us­ing state funds, but much of it sat idle while the build­ing was still be­ing con­structed and lay­outs were be­ing re­con­fig­ured. On a call with share­hold­ers in Fe­bru­ary 2015, Lyn­don de­layed the time­line: The fac­tory, he in­di­cated, would now be built and ready for equip­ment by early 2016 (while that one-gi­gawatt pro­duc­tion tar­get wouldn’t be reached un­til the first quar­ter of 2017). But that dead­line too came and went. As So­larcity’s fi­nan­cial pres­sures in­ten­si­fied, an­other source in­volved says, “It all just stopped. We were go­ing to rely on So­larcity’s money to fin­ish the Buf­falo project, but our sales were so far down that all the money just stopped.” (The com­pany con­firms that there was “limited ac­tiv­ity” in Buf­falo dur­ing this pe­riod, but ex­plains that it was due to shifts in strat­egy.)

In Novem­ber, the site was fi­nally al­most ready to ac­com­mo­date ma­chin­ery. But the build­ing cost had gone over bud­get by $130 mil­lion, and in or­der to pay for the re­main­ing equip­ment, So­larcity would need to pony up an es­ti­mated $200 mil­lion of its own. The fol­low­ing month, So­larcity, hav­ing de­ter­mined that Silevo would not achieve its pro­duc­tion and tech­nol­ogy goals, de­cided that it had to bring in an out­side part­ner, Pana­sonic, to help bear the costs and to take over so­lar-cell man­u­fac­tur­ing.

When I visit the Buf­falo fac­tory in De­cem­ber, there are barely two dozen cars in the mas­sive park­ing lots. (So­larcity de­clined my re­quests to see in­side.) The com­pany had ex­pected to be man­u­fac­tur­ing 10,000 pan­els a day by now, on four to five pro­duc­tion lines, but clearly noth­ing is run­ning. When I pull into the long road lead­ing up to the build­ing, a man idling in a green So­larcity truck flags me down and tells me to leave.

Since the merger, Tesla and So­larcity have been able to share man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­per­tise and re­sources. But ac­cord­ing to sources, with Tesla fo­cused on ramp­ing up Model 3 pro­duc­tion at its other fac­to­ries, Musk him­self has yet to tour the Buf­falo plant. So­larcity now doesn’t ex­pect the Gi­gafac­tory 2 to reach one gi­gawatt of so­lar­mod­ule pro­duc­tion un­til 2019.

In mid-april of 2017, I make a trip to San Ma­teo, Cal­i­for­nia, to meet with Lyn­don at So­larcity head­quar­ters. When I ar­rive, I tell the se­cu­rity guard I’m vis­it­ing So­larcity, but he tells me there is no more So­larcity. “We are Tesla now,” he says.

Clues of the ab­sorp­tion are ev­i­dent all around the of­fice park, from the Tesla charg­ing sta­tions to the signs on the sur­round­ing build­ings, once bear­ing the So­larcity name, now re­placed by Tesla lo­gos.

Lyn­don and I sit down in a plain con­fer­ence room on the sec­ond floor near his cubicle, and soon his as­sis­tant brings us each a black cof­fee and a green smoothie con­coc­tion he calls “The Lyn­don,” which is a blend of kale, cel­ery, and other veg­eta­bles. “Not bad, eh?” Lyn­don says, eye­ing my re­ac­tion as I take a foamy sip. “It’s healthy, and the juice is freshly squeezed. I have one or two ev­ery day fol­lowed up with cof­fee.”

He’s as en­er­getic as usual to­day, swivel­ing fre­net­i­cally in his chair and click­ing the pen in his hand re­peat­edly. The nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing the com­pany, how­ever, isn’t quite as up­beat. So­larcity, in or­der to read­just for lower rev­enue fore­casts, has laid off 3,000 em­ploy­ees, about 20% of its work­force, many of them in sales and mar­ket­ing. While Tesla main­tains that the Gi­gafac­tory 2 is on track, these lay­offs in­cluded em­ploy­ees in Fre­mont and in Buf­falo, and So­larcity also parted ways with Silevo’s CEO and CTO. Serra and Barnard, So­larcity’s CFO and chief rev­enue of­fi­cer, have since left too, as has the head of Zep So­lar. Mean­while, the com­pany’s so­lar in­stal­la­tions have dropped nearly 40% in the past few months, as it con­tin­ues to tran­si­tion away from the orig­i­nal lease-fi­nanc­ing model Lyn­don pi­o­neered and more to­ward loans (which have leapt from rep­re­sent­ing 2% of its sales to 31%). Musk later tells me that “So­larcity will fade away as a brand,” re­placed by “Tesla So­lar.”

These types of post-merger changes have added to the per­cep­tion that the busi­ness was headed to­ward bank­ruptcy un­til Musk stepped in to save it. Lyn­don won’t stand for that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. “It is crazy to think that we needed any type of bailout,” he says when I ask about crit­i­cism the com­pany has faced. “We had mas­sive re­cur­ring rev­enue and ac­cess to liq­uid­ity since we had one of the high­est-vol­ume traded stocks in the so­lar in­dus­try. If we needed to raise cap­i­tal, we could have.” What’s more, he con­tin­ues, So­larcity started to gen­er­ate a “sig­nif­i­cant amount of cash” fol­low­ing its busi­ness-model pivot from leases to loans, re­gard­less of what those bet­ting against the stock said. “The peo­ple whose opin­ions don’t mat­ter are the ones short­ing the stock.”

Lyn­don does ac­knowl­edge that the com­pany en­dured some grow­ing pains in­ter­nally. He ex­plains that the “lead­ers who can lead 1,000 peo­ple may not be the same ones who can man­age 5,000.” If he could have re­done things, he ad­mits, he would’ve in­vested much ear­lier in bet­ter prod­ucts and tried to man­age growth ex­pec­ta­tions more ef­fec­tively. But that’s only easy to see in hind­sight, he says: Few could’ve pre­dicted the wild swings of the so­lar in­dus­try over the past cou­ple years. (Af­ter all, in the past 12 months, two of its larger com­peti­tors, Sunedi­son and Sungevity, have filed for bank­ruptcy.)

When I ask Lyn­don about how he and Musk com­pare as CEOS, he re­turns to that “brick wall” metaphor about how Musk can of­ten break through the im­pos­si­ble. “I can punch through many walls,” Lyn­don says, humbly. “Elon can punch through ev­ery wall. That’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween us.”

A cou­ple weeks af­ter our dis­cus­sion, Lyn­don an­nounces that he will be leav­ing the com­pany. When I reach him by phone, he tells me that So­larcity is in a “place now where a strong op­er­a­tor can take over with­out much im­pact,” and that he plans to take a break be­fore start­ing an­other com­pany that might have “an­other large im­pact on hu­man­ity.” The news of his de­par­ture, com­ing just 170 days af­ter the merger closed, was unexpected—and some have won­dered whether his brother, Peter, might fol­low. (No, Lyn­don says.) When I ask if he has con­sid­ered how it might look that he’s leav­ing, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing the chal­lenges So­larcity had faced dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year, he replies that the ques­tion sounds to him “like a bro­ken record. This con­cept that it was a bailout is su­per an­noy­ing.” He prefers to see the big­ger pic­ture. “The vi­sion will still play through,” he says. “The vi­sion is work­ing.”

Four hours be­fore Tesla is set to post its firstquar­ter earn­ings on May 3, Musk calls me. I ask how he’s do­ing. “Ter­ri­ble,” he says. Is he re­fer­ring to the up­com­ing earn­ings? He laughs. “No, no, I think it will be a good call,” he says. Then he men­tions Tesla’s stock, which re­cently hit an­other all-time high, mak­ing the com­pany more valu­able than Gen­eral Mo­tors, a stun­ning no­tion to some in­vestors con­sid­er­ing that GM sold 10 mil­lion cars last year com­pared with Tesla’s 76,000. Musk won­ders aloud whether the mar­ket is “be­ing a lit­tle too gen­er­ous” and “putting a lot of faith in the fu­ture.”

Musk had touched on a sim­i­lar theme— faith—a few days ear­lier, at a TED Talk in Van­cou­ver. As the host asked a se­ries of ques­tions about his many earth-sav­ing ven­tures, Musk fi­nally stopped him and said, “I want to be clear: I’m not try­ing to be any­one’s sav­ior.” It was an odd state­ment con­sid­er­ing that his whole brand is built around that prom­ise—whether it’s res­cu­ing the planet or the trans­porta­tion sys­tem and en­ergy grid. Per­haps he re­al­ized there’s risk in mak­ing so many pre­dic­tions that seem to im­ply god­like abil­i­ties.

Dur­ing our call, I ask if he ever wor­ries that one day he’ll have to stop push­ing him­self into ever-more-am­bi­tious projects, be­cause if one of his ef­forts truly fails, peo­ple will lose con­fi­dence in him. He doesn’t. “I don’t think I’ve re­ally upped the ante,” he adds. “The goals have been the same from the be­gin­ning.”

It’s true that Musk out­lined part of his broader mis­sion long ago in his mad-ge­nius man­i­festo, jok­ingly en­ti­tled “The Se­cret Tesla Mo­tors Mas­ter Plan,” which he pub­lished on­line in 2006. But I find the idea that he hasn’t upped the ante some­what hard to be­lieve, and even more so af­ter the earn­ings call. Musk spends much of the ses­sion talk­ing to an­a­lysts about the Next Big Things. Sound­ing sub­dued, al­most bored by his own pre­dic­tions, he speaks about ad­vances to­ward the Model 3 roll­out, as well as a new ve­hi­cle, the Model Y, sched­uled for 2019. He gives clues about the po­ten­tial for Tesla semis and pickup trucks, and even briefly dis­cusses the idea for his side ven­ture the Bor­ing Com­pany, his blue­print to rein­vent trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture with un­der­ground tun­nels. He says he wants to con­tinue in­no­vat­ing at Tesla for the rest of his life, or at least un­til he be­comes “se­nile or too crazy.” When an an­a­lyst asks if he an­tic­i­pates that Tesla will one day boast the same mar­ket cap as Ap­ple, which is val­ued at $770 bil­lion to Tesla’s $47 bil­lion, he pauses. “I could be com­pletely delu­sional,” he then says, “but I see a clear path to that out­come.” So­larcity, which Musk had sold as Tesla’s Next Big Thing just a few months ear­lier, barely comes up on the 80-minute call, gar­ner­ing just two brief ques­tions. (The com­pany would be­gin ac­cept­ing or­ders for So­lar Roofs the fol­low­ing week.)

It’s easy to want to be­lieve in the fu­ture Musk imag­ines. And the new So­lar Roofs—com­bined with Pow­er­walls and Tesla cars—may truly be a key de­vel­op­ment in help­ing wean us off fos­sil fu­els. But it’s just as easy, given how that fu­ture seems to grow more fan­tas­ti­cal and dis­tant with each word he ut­ters, to be­come cyn­i­cal. Musk un­der­stands this. As he frames it on the earn­ings call, there will al­ways be “a group that says [this fu­ture] is ob­vi­ous, and a group that says it’s im­pos­si­ble.”

This dis­tinc­tion be­tween be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers, be­tween hope and hype, re­minded me of my visit to Buf­falo. On a frigid evening, days be­fore Christ­mas, nearly 100 peo­ple braved icy roads to at­tend a So­larcity job fair at Mt. Olive Bap­tist Church, on the slight chance they might qual­ify for one of the few hun­dred po­si­tions avail­able at the com­pany’s so­lar fac­tory. Res­i­dents of all types—laid-off fac­tory work­ers, ser­vice-in­dus­try em­ploy­ees try­ing to switch pro­fes­sions, stu­dents look­ing for their first jobs—gath­ered to learn about So­larcity’s plans. They had come to hear a re­cruit­ing rep share the gospel of Musk, who, a num­ber of them told me af­ter­ward, is a “vi­sion­ary” and an “in­no­va­tor.”

For many Tesla watch­ers, whether Musk suc­ceeds or fails in his var­i­ous quests will mean lit­tle more than whether there’s an­other cool prod­uct on the mar­ket, or a higher stock price. But for these peo­ple in the linoleum-floored church meet­ing room, the stakes are higher and more press­ing.

“Many years ago, we had the man­u­fac­tur­ers— the GMS, the Fords, the Beth­le­hem Steels— [pro­vid­ing] good-pay­ing jobs,” says Rasheed Wy­att, a lo­cal city coun­cil mem­ber. “But those have died off, and we’ve strug­gled to give our res­i­dents a new iden­tity.” So­larcity could be trans­for­ma­tional. “I’m hop­ing this is go­ing to be a boom.”

“It is crazy to think that we needed any type of bailout,” says Lyn­don Rive, So­larcity’s for­mer CEO. “If we needed to raise cap­i­tal, we could have.”

Tesla is bet­ting that its Pow­er­wall bat­tery, com­bined with its So­lar Roof tiles, will en­tice the de­sign-con­scious set.

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