Why Tesla & SolarCity’s planned factories are quite different

Tesla and SolarCity might both be building what they’re calling “gigafactories” — huge, industry-disrupting manufacturing plants — but the strategies employed by each company actually have different degrees of risk involved and different goals. Tesla’s is far more audacious in size, but SolarCity is trying to scale up a new technology, and the world is littered with failed companies that tried to scale new manufacturing tech on a certain timeline and for a certain budget.

Earlier this week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled upstate to the city of Buffalo to attend an official “ground-breaking” for SolarCity’s planned massive solar panel factory there. When, and if, completed the factory will be one of the largest solar panel manufacturing plants of its kind outside of Asia, with enough capacity to eventually make 1 GW worth of solar panels per year. For comparison’s sake, there’s just a little over 15 GW of solar panels currently installed in the U.S.

Tesla factor floor, image courtesy of Tesla.

Tesla factor floor, image courtesy of Tesla.

Of course, with Elon Musk as SolarCity’s chairman, and Musk’s cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive as the company’s CTO and CEO, respectively, there are clear similarities between what SolarCity is doing in New York and what Musk’s other company, electric car maker Tesla Motors, plans to do with the massive battery factory it’s building just outside of Reno, Nevada. Tesla has already started construction on the world’s largest lithium ion battery factory, which is supposed to make enough batteries for 500,000 of its electric cars by 2020.

The comparisons between the strategies were echoed across the media, and by the sheer fact that the Governor’s office and others were calling SolarCity’s factory the “GigaFactory.” That was a term first mentioned by Musk on an earnings call in late 2013.

But beyond the obvious similarities, what the two companies are trying to accomplish with these factories is actually quite different. Here’s a look at the contrasts between the two factories, as opposed to the already widely discussed similarities:

SolarCity panels, image courtesy of SolarCity.

SolarCity panels, image courtesy of SolarCity.

SolarCity is trying to cross through the Valley of Death

As I mentioned above, SolarCity is trying to scale up a solar cell manufacturing process that previously was being produced on a small 32 MW line in China. And SolarCity itself doesn’t have previous manufacturing experience, though its latest acquisition, Silevo, does.

SolarCity bought seven-year-old startup Silevo earlier this summer, and will be scaling up this startup’s technology in Buffalo. Most of the startups that try to move from small pilot manufacturing to large-scale commercial manufacturing end up meeting hurdles in costs, in delays and in efficiency and consistency of manufacturing. You can read all of these risks in SolarCity’s SEC filing.

Solyndra's 300K Square Foot Factory

Solyndra’s now defunct 300,000 square foot factory

Solyndra infamously tried to scale up young solar manufacturing technology and crashed and burned. Shyam Mehta has a good article on why Silevo’s tech (it’s evolutionary from the current standard being used now) and strategy is much less risky than Solyndra’s, but clearly there’s still a substantial risk involved.

Tesla, on the other hand, will be using mostly already-proven and scaled out lithium-ion battery technology. Panasonic will be bringing in its battery manufacturing equipment. The technology risk itself is low, even if the scale and size is unprecedented.

Tesla’s factory will be gargantuan while SolarCity’s will be just big

Another big differences between these two strategies is sheer size. Tesla’s battery factory will be a 10 million-square-foot factory, while will be a mile long and 70 feet high. SolarCity’s factory will be a 1 million square foot factory on 88 acres.

Tesla’s factory will be so big that it will change the face of the lithium ion battery industry and it will be by far the largest source of these batteries in the world. In terms of volume, it will actually be bigger than all of the output of the current lithium ion battery factories in the world combined.

A recently raised spot of land in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

A recently raised spot of land in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

SolarCity’s 1 GW factory is big, but not bigger than some of the large solar manufacturers in China. Before Suntech Power fell, it had capacity for 2 GW of solar panels a year (twice SolarCity’s projected amount), and Yingli Solar has about that amount of production capacity, too. SolarCity’s factory won’t change the game for the entire industry, but it could be a disruptive competitive step for SolarCity itself, helping it reduce costs and scale with a potential tech advantage.

The factories meet different needs for the companies

Tesla has to build its battery factory in order to reach a certain scale and price reduction for its third-generation, more low cost, electric car. Tesla can’t make a $35,000 electric car (it might end up being more expensive than that) at large volumes unless worldwide lithium ion battery capacity grows and costs drop.

While Tesla does intend to sell some of the batteries produced for grid-scale energy storage, becoming a battery producer isn’t the main goal; selling more cars is. There is a certain amount of risk involved if the Model 3 car isn’t a hit for whatever reason. Tesla’s cars are constrained by supply right now, not demand, but if a ton of batteries for its cars are produced, it will need to generate considerable demand.

SolarCity is also looking to reduce the cost of solar panels, and grow its solar installations dramatically, and it needs to do these things to become profitable. But there’s isn’t a technology leap and new product — like Tesla’s Model 3 — that it needs to make. Consumers don’t care if SolarCity is using its own panels, or another companies panels on their rooftop. So in that respect, the demand will be more predictable than Tesla’s Model 3 electric car demand.

SolarCity and Tesla are taking these steps, to build these big factories, at the same time, which is actually a helpful strategy for both companies. Tesla can pair its excess batteries with SolarCity’s solar panels and use SolarCity’s distribution to get energy storage sold. SolarCity will likely be installing solar panels on the Tesla factory roof and already sells Tesla its panels for its superchargers. The union ultimately could help both companies make it through this higher risk time launching these new factories.