KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today on All Tech Considered, an energy revolution.
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MCEVERS: In the high desert of Nevada outside Reno, Elon Musk's company, Tesla, is building a massive battery factory, the largest on the planet. It's called the Gigafactory, and it'll turn out batteries for the company's electric cars. But it's also making something new, a battery for your house. Lauren Sommer from member station KQED got a rare tour.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Tesla's Gigafactory is kind of like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. It's mysterious, it's big and few people have been inside. Actually, big may not do it justice.
JB STRAUBEL: It's really hard to get a sense of scale. I mean, it's huge.
SOMMER: JB Straubel is Tesla's chief technical officer. And we're up on the roof of the Gigafactory - the part that's been built, at least.
STRAUBEL: So you can see the sort of building footprint that would be in front of us to the north.
SOMMER: We're looking down at a flat stretch of land where the rest of the Gigafactory will go. It's tucked away in a dusty valley near Sparks, Nev. Like Willy Wonka's factory, there's a lot of hype around this place. People have been caught sneaking onto the property to see what will be one of the biggest buildings in the world, Straubel says, almost 6 million square feet.
STRAUBEL: I'm not a huge football fan, but I think it's on the order of around 100 football fields.
SOMMER: Nevada beat out several states by offering an incentive package worth more than $1 billion. Lawmakers here are watching like hawks for the economic benefits, like making sure Nevadans make up a big part of the factory's 6,000 workers.
STRAUBEL: We have to, you know, watch a little bit where we walk.
SOMMER: Inside the factory, workers are welding steel, pouring concrete and installing highly specialized machines shrouded in plastic in room after room after room.
STRAUBEL: So this is a pretty exciting room.
SOMMER: It's filled with huge metal tanks, almost like an insanely large industrial kitchen.
STRAUBEL: This is where we will actually mix the materials. So the raw materials, we mix them into what's called a slurry.
SOMMER: Straubel says all this equipment will double the world's capacity to make lithium-ion batteries.
STRAUBEL: You know, it's not just about building a lot more batteries, but it's about reducing the cost.
SOMMER: Tesla is known for pricey electric cars, and batteries are a big part of the sticker price, which is why, Straubel says, this whole factory is about scale. Scaling up could drive down the cost of batteries 30 percent or more, he says.
STRAUBEL: Our vehicles can be more affordable, more people can have access to them.
SOMMER: That's what the company is going for with the new Model 3, its first mass-market car announced last month. It'll run around $28,000 after the federal tax credit.
STRAUBEL: We have today, you know, over 325,000 reservations for Model 3, you know, representing, you know, this enormous backlog of orders.
SOMMER: Those are orders Tesla can't fill if this factory isn't up and running. Just one room over, part of the factory is running, but it's making something else.
STRAUBEL: That's a Powerwall, actually. Do we want to walk through a little bit...
SOMMER: ...The Powerwall is a flat battery, about 4 feet tall, 3 feet wide, coming off the production line. It's Tesla's first battery for your house.
STRAUBEL: And if someone has solar on their house and they install a Powerwall, what this lets you do is store your surplus solar energy.
SOMMER: This is Tesla's ultimate vision - an electric car in your driveway and a Powerwall in your garage. It's a future free of fossil fuels, Straubel says.
STRAUBEL: It's changing the transportation landscape. It's changing the energy landscape. It's changing the world.
SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: It would really be a game changer for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
SOMMER: Severin Borenstein is an energy economist at UC Berkeley. He says the question is whether consumers will buy into Tesla's vision. Take that $3,000 home battery. Electric rates in many states make it hard to actually save money storing your own electricity.
BORENSTEIN: Average households are not going to get much or any value from these batteries.
SOMMER: Early adopters may not care, though.
BORENSTEIN: There are people who like that and feel good about it, and they're mostly pretty darn rich.
SOMMER: Borenstein says Tesla CEO Elon Musk is betting that cheaper batteries will make everyone else want one, too.
BORENSTEIN: Is Elon Musk sort of far-seeing and investing in the future, or is he just making big bets that could all collapse at once?
SOMMER: The $5 billion Gigafactory is exactly that gamble. If Tesla stays on schedule, it'll be fully open in four years.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer outside Sparks, Nev.
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