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‘Changing the Way We Consume Energy Would Save the World’

Lyndon Rive, the first cousin and soon-to-be-colleague of Elon Musk, on the fight to make solar power universal. 

Lyndon Rive.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Lyndon Rive
Occupation: CEO, SolarCity
Age: 39
Residence: Atherton

Worldwide, adoption of solar power is growing faster than ever. But Wall Street seems pretty pessimistic about the prospects of companies like yours. One of your biggest competitors, Sun-Edison, declared bankruptcy in April. What’s going on?
You have your cycles, where Wall Street may be in favor of solar and then maybe not, but the fundamentals are just there. Humanity will be producing energy from the sun. If you can provide energy that is cleaner at a lower cost, then it has to become the dominant energy.

But if that’s true, why were analysts so negative about Tesla’s $2.6 billion offer to buy SolarCity?
Questions on the deal are really hard for me to give any comment on. You’ve caught us at an awkward time, and legally I can’t give any feedback.

OK, so let’s simplify this: What is SolarCity? Are you an installer? A panel maker? A utility?
I’ve never viewed myself as an installer. I view myself as an energy provider. And given the choice of paying more for dirty energy and less for clean energy, hopefully most people would choose clean energy.

The industry took a big hit last year after a regulatory change in Nevada that favored utilities and raised prices for solar for customers. How do you get past that?
It is a fight. But you have to look at all the wins. California is pushing clean energy. New York is pushing clean energy. Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut—all are doing the right thing. There are far more wins than losses. But of course the losses are the ones that everyone is talking about. The concern is that what happened in Nevada might encourage multiple other states to follow. The answer is no. In Nevada, the utility does have an incredible amount of influence. But the backlash in Nevada is insane. It’s embarrassing for Nevada. The state has some of the highest sun exposure in the country and killed its solar industry. Nevada will come back.

Your cousin Elon Musk is chairman of SolarCity, and you have recounted many times the story of how he suggested that you get into solar while on a road trip to Burning Man. Do you ever feel like you are just a character in Elon Musk’s science fiction novel?
To me, Elon Musk is one of the greatest individuals in the world. He has a clear vision. He knows what we have to do to save humanity, and we do it. So that’s it. We have to do it.

How far can you push this? What’s your wildest dream?
To get to a point where every single home has solar. I think that’s going to happen. The question is, How long does it take to get to there? A lot of people don’t want us to succeed. There are a lot of entrenched industries that would prefer that we continue burning fossil fuel. There are fights between us and the utilities. There are nonprofits that claim to be consumer choice but are funded by people like the Koch brothers, and they come up with white papers on why solar is not good. Solving the problem is hard enough—we don’t need the extra battles. I would say that is the biggest frustration we deal with.

You once said that the reason you started SolarCity was that you wanted to do something that “made us feel good every single day.” Do you still feel that way?
A big company needs a mission over and above just salary. Otherwise, morale is not great, and people don’t feel passionate about their work. We are fortunate that the work here creates the mission itself. Everybody is here to participate in the mission.

Which is to save the world?
Which is to change the way we consume energy—which would save the world. But I don’t want to say SolarCity alone can save the world. That is not the case. We are doing our part. But we need everybody else to do their part, too.

This interview was originally conducted for the September/October edition of our sister magazine, Silicon Valley.

Originally published in the September issue of
San Francisco

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