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The Real Deal

October 4, 2012

Tesla Motors recently introduced a full-size luxury sedan, the Model S. You can buy it with three different battery packs: small, with a range of 160 miles on a charge; medium, with a range of 230 miles; and large, at 300 miles. Base prices for the small-battery Model S start at $57,400; for the large-battery model, at $95,400.

Most driving mileage is run up in short-range driving, including a lot of home-to-work commuting. Americans drive 2.7 trillion miles per year, 1.7 trillion of which is urban driving. A small-battery Model S is perfect for urban driving. Charge the battery at home, drive to work and back, and charge up again. If we could replace even just a fraction of gasoline-powered urban driving with battery-powered driving, we could reduce our demand for gasoline by billions of gallons a year.

But here’s what’s new: Tesla has started building high-speed charging stations in between cities in California. Tesla is proposing a nation-wide network of these stations, which would enable electric car owners to go on long-range trips.

The high-speed charging stations work at 90 kilowatts, adding 250 miles of range to a Model S in an hour of charging. Basically, the Model S can now fill up in the time it takes to eat a leisurely roadside lunch. The catch is that only the medium-sized and large-sized Model S battery options can use these high-speed charging stations.

Now here’s what’s really big: Tesla is building its charging stations with solar panels. Battery-powered driving uses no gasoline and emits no smog, but if the charging stations are themselves powered by burning fossil fuels, the benefit is reduced. Tesla is powering its charging stations with sunshine.

Aside from eliminating gasoline and smog from driving, solar-powered charging stations means that Tesla is able to offer free battery charges to big-battery Model S owners – for life. In other words, the Model S owner could give up paying for gasoline, forever – and could still go on coast-to-coast family vacations with the kids in the back seat.

We’re not quite there yet. The Model S is expensive, and although the gasoline savings will be considerable over the life of the car, for most drivers the savings won’t fully offset the increased purchase price. And even an hour to charge up after every four or five hours of driving won’t satisfy everyone.

Still, this is a game-changer. If solar-charged batteries powered three-quarters of American driving, we would need no foreign oil. We could export the technology to Japan and Europe, and they could stop importing oil as well.  The implications for our economy, environment, health, politics and foreign policy are almost beyond imagination.

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