If every industrial revolution is powered by a new energy source, then the current one has found its juice of choice: solar. Elon Musk sealed the deal yesterday by announcing he wants to combine his iconic car company, Tesla, with his cousin Lyndon Rive’s SolarCity to allow environmentally conscious customers to buy a car, solar panels, and a home battery, all in one (very expensive) package. It’s a natural extension of the plan the cousins hatched on an RV trip to Burning Man back in 2004.
Just a few years ago, experts wondered whether solar power could ever compete with other forms of energy. But an 80% reduction of the cost of solar panels in the last five years has answered that question.
“We are in the middle of a complete disruption of electricity,” says SunPower CEO Thomas Werner, who stopped by Fortune’s offices yesterday while in New York. Like Musk, Werner – whose company is 66% owned by French oil company Total – believes battery storage will be a big area of expansion for his company in coming years. He says SunPower’s current installations are roughly equally split between residential, commercial and industrial, and large solar fields for utilities, but he sees commercial and industrial as the fastest growing segment in the near future. For companies, it’s a natural investment: “Your customers want it, your employees want it, and you can save money.” Werner also said the data revolution and the solar revolution are closely linked: power-hungry data centers seeking clean energy are among his biggest customers.
Interestingly, Werner says his biggest concern these days is the cost of financing, which accounts for roughly a third of the cost of a solar installation. As interest rates rise, the business will feel the pinch.
More news below.
• Bremain Stays a Nose Ahead
One day to go and you would still be brave or foolish to bet on the outcome of British E.U. referendum. The BBC’s poll tracker suggests Remain leads Leave by 45%-44%, as does the Financial Times’ poll of polls. Bloomberg puts the probability of a Brexit at 37%, while most of the bookmakers put it around 25%, offering around 3-1. The biggest factor indicating a win for Remain, against that background, is that pollsters have consistently said undecided voters (still around 11%) could split two-to-one in favour of Remain. Against that is the knowledge that old voters (mainly pro-Leave) are more likely to vote than (pro-Remain) younger ones. The last major TV debate last night appears to have gone slightly in favor of the Remainers, who capitalized on the outrage at the murder of MP Jo Cox by dubbing the Leave campaign ‘Project Hate’ (as opposed to ‘Project Fear’, which is the Brexiteers’ term for David Cameron’s campaign). BBC
• Arora Bails from Softbank
Nikesh Arora abruptly resigned from his position as heir apparent to Masayoshi Son at Softbank after the Japanese investor changed his mind about stepping down next year. Son now says he wants to run the company for another five to 10 years. Arora’s eye-watering remuneration—he took home nearly $240 million in less than two years at the company–had been a sore point for both employees and investors. Arora has sold $500 million of Softbank stock back to Son as a result of leaving. His severance package isn’t being disclosed, but is reported to be “in line with global standards.” Presumably it will be enough to help him “chill for a bit” which was what he told Twitter will be his next step. FT, metered access
• Drone Laws
Law and order is coming to the skies for the commercial drone industry. The Federal Aviation Administration finally revealed its much-anticipated ruling for how businesses can use drones for inspecting power lines, filming movie scenes, and taking photos of farmland. The new rules, which take effect in late August, include limiting the use of drones to the daytime and up to 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset; not flying drones over 400 feet in altitude; and requiring drone operators to qualify for flying certificates by passing exams. The FAA’s new rules don’t appear to ease up on the principle that drone operators must fly aircraft within their line of sight, which will remain a big restriction on the long-distance operation of drones. Fortune
• Facebook Shakes its Loose Change to Video Producers
The cost of generating content for Facebook Live, the social network’s video streaming feature, became a little clearer after The Wall Street Journal reported it has signed up to 140 contracts worth $50 million with various content providers. It said Buzzfeed and the New York Times are both being paid more than $3 million to provide live video, with CNN not far behind on $2.5 million. One intriguing angle of the broader story is that videos by celebrities (chef Gordon Ramsay and comedian Kevin Hart were named in the WSJ’s article) appear to get a lot more engagement than those from media companies. According to The Information, celebrities account for more than 60% of the top 200 most-viewed live videos, while media companies provided just 15%. Fortune, The Information
Around the Water Cooler
• VW Faces Shareholders
Volkswagen holds its much-delayed annual shareholder meeting today, a day after it became known that Germany’s stock market watchdog wants the whole VW management board investigated for its role in hiding the extent of the diesel emissions problem from investors. By contrast, prosecutors in Brunswick have appeared to shy away from opening a probe into Hans Dieter Poetsch, who as chief financial officer had direct responsibility for communicating with investors. Poetsch’s promotion from CFO to chairman of the supervisory board late last year is widely seen as one of the biggest grounds for doubting VW’s ability and willingness to give a thorough account of who knew what, when. Another is the fact that a thorough exposé could seriously embarrass the provincial government of Lower Saxony, VW’s second-largest shareholder. Fortune
• Mitsubishi Stares Into the Abyss
VW’s brother-in-woe Mitsubishi Motors said would probably lose around 145 billion yen ($1.4 billion) in its current fiscal year due to the scandal over its fake fuel economy figures. It published an updated estimate of charges from the scandal Wednesday that was three times it estimate of last week. It’s now clear that Mitsubishi rigged at least some of its fuel economy testing for 25 years, a duration which implicates whole generations of management. President Tetsuro Aikawa has already stepped down and the company is well on the way to being subsumed into Nissan, its long-standing partner whose reputation has also been tarnished. The company said it would pay around $600 million to reimburse buyers of the most recently affected vehicles and setting aside another $86 million to compensate them for lost tax breaks on supposedly green cars. WSJ, subscription required
• Samsung Steps up IoT Drive
Samsung said it will invest $1.2 billion in the U.S. over the next four years in technologies aimed at developing the Internet of Things. The money is supposed to be evenly divided between internal R&D and investments in other startups, which should be music to the ears of private equity backers looking down the line for buyers for their projects. For Samsung, it accelerates the change of corporate focus away from smartphones (having started to suffer from market saturation before Apple) towards microchips. Given that strategic shift, it would be a surprise if this were to be the Korean company’s last IoT initiative—especially since an annual investment of $300 million is a small fraction of its $14 billion R&D budget. WSJ, subscription required
• Disney’s Latest Scrap in China
Disney’s struggle with the phenomenon of Chinese plagiarism has added a new dimension, after the company took three Chinese firms to court in Shanghai over concerns that a locally-produced animated film called “The Autobots” copied elements from its own hit movie “Cars.” Disney is making a major push into the world’s second-largest economy (which had a $6.8 billion box office last year), and has sunk $5.5 billion into a recently-opened theme park in Shanghai. But it faces tough competition from local theme park developers, popular Chinese animations as well as counterfeits from merchandise to fake Disney hotels. Chinese authorities have promised it “special” trademark protection. Fortune