AUSTIN, Texas—Tesla CEO Elon Musk has something in common with the energy industry: concern about permitting and siting reform for infrastructure.

“We are like practically making construction illegal in this country, especially in California,” Musk said during a June 13 keynote address at the EEI 2023 conference. Each regulation is not so bad; however, with thousands, he compared it to Gulliver’s Travels. “It’s a thousand, ten thousand little strings holding the giant of America down from a regulatory standpoint.”

Permitting reform is among the issues being faced by energy players working to transition the world to lower carbon energy sources. The recent passage of debt ceiling legislation brought a win, streamlining some parts of the permitting process for infrastructure with amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act. However, more is needed, experts say amid a strong electrification drive calling for improved grids to meet higher expected energy demand.

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To Musk, also CEO of aerospace company SpaceX and chairman of Twitter, just about everything will be electric someday. Speaking before the crowd of Edison Electric Institute (EEI) members, Musk continuously stressed the need for more electricity as the company expands production with new gigafactories.

“Demand for electricity is going to be extremely high. I hope that’s good news,” Musk told the audience of electricity utility providers. “We need to roughly triple electricity to get to a fully electric economy…It’s really going to take a tremendous effort to address this. This is sort of, I think, very good news for those producing electricity, but also entails a tremendous amount of work ahead and new production capacity.”

Megapacks are the way to go, he said, when it comes to energy storage to help stabilize the grid. They essentially charge up when there is excess power production and release it when there is insufficient power production. Stationary storage is the fastest growing part of Tesla’s business, he said, growing 300% per year—far outpacing the company’s electric vehicle (EV) business.

On electric vehicles

Tesla, a manufacturer of EVs, saw explosive growth in the last few years. The Austin-based company delivered about 50,000 cars in 2015. By 2022, the count surpassed more than 1.4 million.

“It means that we should expect electrification of transport, especially passenger vehicles, quite quickly,” Musk said. “Electric vehicles are growing exponentially.”

However, it will take time for EVs to outnumber the more than 2 billion cars and trucks on the road today and about 100 million new vehicles. Even if 100% of those vehicles were EVs, it would take 20 years to replace the fleet, he said. “I think we’re moving quickly to the point where probably half of all new vehicles made will be electric.”

Several states—including Oregon, Washington and California—have established programs mandating that all new cars, trucks and SUVs be electric, aiming to reduce emissions to slow global warming.  Some states are also planning to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles.

On battery supply chain

While low U.S. supplies of EV battery materials such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, nickel and manganese in the U.S. is seen as a concern, Musk doesn’t see it as a problem for Tesla.

“Raw materials are not really an issue here, especially when you consider iron-based cathodes,” Musk said, adding most of the batteries will be made with iron—the most common element on Earth by mass.             

“We’re not going to run out of iron, that’s for sure—especially for stationary storage where massive volumes are not that important,” Musk said before turning to lithium-ion cells. “Lithium is like the salt on a salad, it’s not the salad itself,” Musk said, as it makes up a small amount of the battery’s mass.

The higher energy chemistry is on nickel, and the lower energy chemistry is on iron, he explained. “We use nickel for long-range stuff where mass and volume really matter. We use iron where it is less important, so medium-range cars, whereas nickel would be used for long-range vehicles and aircraft.”

On artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also moving deeper into the energy and power industries. Session moderator Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International, pointed out how the company used an AI-enabled tool to select images captured by drones as part of nearly 200,000 asset inspections in areas where wildfire risk is high.

“There’s no way humans could process all those images,” Pizarro said, before asking Musk about his thoughts on AI.

“I am worried about AI on the downside,” Musk said, calling it a powerful technology that needs government oversight so companies don’t do “super dangerous things.”

Musk recently launched X.AI Corp., a Nevada-based AI company, according to media reports.