Beside a horseshoe bend in the Colorado River where ospreys and egrets hunt for fish, a few miles northeast of Austin’s airport, the largest factory in the world stretches the equivalent of fifteen city blocks. One sweltering afternoon last August, a couple of hundred men and women scurried from their cars—nearly all Teslas—into the building’s cool interior. There, a makeshift bar served cocktails, including the Plaid Libation, a tequila, Red Bull, and orange juice concoction that took its name from a $115,000 Tesla model that can accelerate from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour in two seconds.
Eventually the crowd made its way past industrial artworks—including a partially assembled Tesla sedan hanging from the ceiling on steel cables—to the rows of white folding chairs set up facing a stage with a glass-wall backdrop overlooking another section of the factory. They’d come for the annual shareholder meeting of Tesla, the maker of electric automobiles that relocated its headquarters from California to Texas in December 2021.
Such conclaves are typically boring affairs at which executives make carefully lawyered statements about future profitability. But here the formalities were quickly dispensed with, and the meeting turned freewheeling and inspirational—something between a TED talk and the Sunday morning sermon at a megachurch. Blessed be the profit makers. Blessed be Elon Musk, the company’s iconoclastic CEO, who took the stage dressed entirely in black. The audience rose to its feet, cheering and holding up cellphones to record the moment, looking more like Comic-Con fanboys and fangirls than investors. “He’s basically a rock star,” said Warren Redlich, a retired trial lawyer who had traveled from his home in Satellite Beach, Florida, for the event. “We believe he is delivering a future that is good for humanity.”
Musk smiled at the greeting from his acolytes and tipped an imaginary hat. “Elon! Elon! Elon!” the crowd chanted.
“I love you guys,” he replied.
“Welcome to Texas,” one person yelled.
“Thank you,” he said, nodding. “It’s great here.”
Tesla had recently manufactured its three millionth vehicle. It had taken more than a decade for the upstart company to make one million cars, but now it was turning out that many every six to seven months. It was the fourth-most-valuable company in the United States, trailing only the household names of Apple, Google, and Amazon. The 51-year-old Musk was worth $268 billion, making him the wealthiest person on earth.
When he noisily announced his move to the Lone Star State, in 2020, he had spent most of his adulthood in California. Born and raised in South Africa, he speaks in a clipped, angular accent that is as far from a drawl as Johannesburg is from Austin. Yet he projects a fittingly Texan sense of ambition and audacity.
Tesla has reinvented the automobile, leading the industry’s accelerating shift away from gasoline-powered engines, and Musk has far grander plans for the company. “The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors . . . is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy,” he wrote in 2006. Already Tesla is helping to popularize home solar panels. And it has brought giant batteries to power grids around the world, including in Texas, where they will help maintain a steady flow of renewable energy even during hours when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Another of his companies, SpaceX, has built a complex to launch rockets from the seaside town of Boca Chica, near Brownsville, that might someday take humans to another planet. His jokingly named Boring Company, based in Pflugerville, a half hour north of Austin, tests its high-speed tunnel-
digging technology in Bastrop County, a half hour east of the capital, and has proposed pie-in-the-sky projects to enable cars to travel under some of the state’s most congested roads. And his Neuralink, which reportedly has plans for a sizable new campus near Tesla’s Austin factory, is working on implantable hardware intended to allow the human brain to interface with computers. The Muskification of Texas is well underway.
Given his immense appetite for reimagining entire industries—automobiles, energy, space, and even social media (with his acquisition of Twitter last year)—it seems natural that Musk found his way to Texas. In our state, the wildcatters who discovered Spindletop ushered in the oil age. The engineers at Texas Instruments developed the silicon transistor and the integrated circuit, fast-tracking the computer age. NASA’s Houston-based astronauts punched their way through the stratosphere into the space age. So where better than Texas for Musk to make good on his aim to bring forth an age of sustainable energy?
Tesla’s products are cars and solar panels and batteries, but what Musk really sells is faith in the future. During the shareholder meeting, he said, “I meet a lot of people out there who have lost hope. They think it’s too late. And they think there’s no chance, and the earth is doomed. It’s not doomed. Earth can and will be saved.”
Key to Musk’s vision for saving the planet is eliminating our dependence on hydrocarbons—or, as he reportedly put it while delivering a toast on the day the company went public, in 2010, “F— oil!” A high-gloss corporate film that aired at the outset of last August’s annual meeting echoed that sentiment, though less crudely, proclaiming that Tesla was “helping humanity exit the fossil fuel era.” That’s of course the same fossil fuel era that transformed Texas from a poor frontier territory eking out a living from cattle, cotton, and timber into a global economic power.
Yet weirdly, this California apostate has been embraced by the Republican leaders of Texas, who famously despise both the Golden State and green energy. Texas is built literally and financially on oil, but that didn’t stop Governor Greg Abbott from welcoming a company designed to hasten the end of the oil age. “Texas is a perfect fit for Tesla,” he tweeted shortly after the company’s plans for an Austin factory became public. Abbott wasn’t announcing some ideological pivot. He merely sought to burnish his administration’s reputation for spurring economic growth. Not long after, he released a photograph in which he and Musk sit side by side in the governor’s office—both men smiling and flashing the “Hook ’em ” hand sign.
Musk has become the richest, best-known businessman in a generation to call Texas home. Abbott would have you believe that Musk came because the state is self-evidently the best place in America for entrepreneurs. The truth is more nuanced. He likely chose Texas because he was in a hurry to grow, and leaders here will bulldoze bureaucratic barriers so that he can get to bulldozing building sites. Want to fast-track your plans to incorporate an entirely new town where your employees can both work and live? Are a wildlife refuge and retirees in the way of your plans for a spaceport? In Texas, such matters are minor inconveniences, easily sidestepped in the pursuit of new investment.
With state and local officials so willing to accommodate Musk’s needs, Texans might ask what exactly his vision for the state looks like. He’s come from afar, bearing strange new ideas and technologies that he insists will yield a brighter future for humankind. He’s referred to Tesla’s Austin Gigafactory, which produces vehicles designed to feel not of this world, as an alien dreadnought. The Rio Grande Valley serves as his launching pad toward a professed desire to found a colony on Mars, just in case his plans to save Earth fall short. It’s like one of the science fiction books he devoured as a child. And it’s a page-turner. Will the new Texan terraform the state into a sustainable energy paradise, or will the natives ultimately turn against the outsider for pushing too hard, too fast?
Our state’s founders and early heroes—Stephen F. Austin, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Lorenzo de Zavala—came to this land seeking glory or freedom or just an escape from creditors and arrest warrants. Elon Musk first came to Texas because he wanted to make a very, very loud noise.
This was in 2002. Musk had already helped build and sell two software companies, including a forerunner to PayPal. He was both extraordinarily wealthy and restless. Like some wildcatter who hit it big and plowed all his money into an even riskier bet, Musk put a large portion of his fortune into SpaceX. He wanted to test a rocket with an engine capable of producing 60,000 pounds of thrust—roughly four times more force than it takes to fly a modern Boeing 737—at the Mojave Air & Space Port, in the Southern California desert. But the facility limited test rockets to 30,000 pounds of thrust, according to Liftoff, Houston author Eric Berger’s book about the launch of SpaceX. The more thrust, the louder the noise a rocket engine makes.
So Musk leased an unused rocket-testing facility in McGregor, a small town between Waco and Fort Hood. The site had been built by Beal Aerospace, a short-lived Frisco-based company that shut down in 2000. The rent was attractive—just $45,000 a year for 197 acres—but the bigger draw was that rockets tested there could use as much as 75,000 pounds of thrust, generating roughly 85 decibels, the noise level of heavy city traffic, to someone standing a half mile from the complex. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the size of engines you can test-fire.
Ten years later, SpaceX began quietly buying and leasing land for a launchpad alongside a 90,000-acre wildlife refuge near where the Rio Grande drains into the Gulf of Mexico. The site offered inexpensive acreage in one of the closest places to the equator in the continental United States, a draw for a rocket company with a $1.6 billion NASA contract to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. (The closer to the equator a rocket launches, the faster it travels at takeoff and therefore the less fuel it needs.) Texas lawmakers chipped in $15 million for its development. Environmentalists protested, as did landowners who had moved to the area for peace and quiet, but none could match the clout of a billionaire with the backing of state and local officials.
In Boca Chica, SpaceX tests and develops its reusable Starship rockets. Musk seems to have taken over the town. SpaceX pressured locals to sell their homes with what some say were heavy-handed tactics. Public beaches are closed with little notice when rocket tests are underway, and some failed tests have ended in explosions that sprayed shrapnel more than five miles away. Musk must respect the immutable laws of physics, but the laws of men are malleable.
His footprint in Texas continues to expand. Tesla plans to operate a lithium refinery near Corpus Christi to upgrade the metal into battery-grade material. The company has been promised millions in tax breaks to subsidize the refinery’s construction. In exchange, Tesla pledged to create 162 new jobs, most of which pay at least $53,000 a year. In December, Musk participated in a conversation on Twitter during which an investor pointed out that it takes, on average, seven years to build such a refinery. “Seven years is insane. Maybe we’re deluded, but we’re aiming to be having meaningful volume out of that refinery in, like, two years,” Musk declared, promising to push his employees and contractors and multiple government bureaucracies to the boundaries of what’s possible.
That hard-driving attitude toward innovation was evident in Musk’s earliest dealings with Tesla, which, contrary to popular assumption, he didn’t found. A 2003 conversation over lunch in the Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo with J. B. Straubel, one of the central figures in the Southern California EV scene, convinced Musk that lithium-ion batteries had improved enough, and gotten affordable enough, to power cars. The technology, partly developed by University of Texas at Austin professor John Goodenough, was first used commercially in handheld camcorders, in 1991, then in laptop computers.
Straubel was working with a company that had developed a zippy prototype of an electric sports car. Musk took the vehicle for a test drive and urged the company to commercialize it. “The world needs to see it is possible to have a viable electric car,” he said. The company’s leaders weren’t interested but introduced Musk to another EV start-up, Tesla Motors. Musk invested in Tesla, then got frustrated with its leadership and took it over.
Tesla stuck to Straubel’s battery insight: instead of developing a new automotive-grade battery, Tesla would use the sort of lithium-ion battery cells made for laptops. At the time, laptops used between six and twelve cells. Tesla’s first vehicle, the two-seat Roadster, needed about seven thousand, in a battery that weighed more than an upright piano. Its first factory, a 5.3-million-square-foot former Toyota facility on San Francisco Bay, started rolling cars off its assembly line in 2012.
For Musk, Tesla was never just a car company. From the start, he had designs on changing the energy business as we know it. Such grandiose thinking is typical of him. “He fancies himself the master planner, right? It fits into his self-conception about ‘Only I can see things all being tied together,’ ” said a former high-level Tesla executive. Musk also has zero patience for people who don’t understand his vision. “He just doesn’t suffer fools lightly,” said Don Kendall, a Houston investor who served with him on the board of directors of SolarCity, a solar-energy start-up launched in 2006 with Musk’s funding.
SolarCity offered solar-power systems with software that allowed homeowners to harvest electricity from the sun, store it on Tesla batteries, and potentially profit from any excess energy exported to the power grid. In 2016 SolarCity was absorbed into Tesla as its solar division, which sells a bundle of solar panels and a home-battery system called Powerwall. It generates about 5 percent of Tesla’s revenue and 2.8 percent of the company’s gross profit. Worm Capital, a Boulder, Colorado, investment-management firm, has said Tesla’s energy division is hugely underappreciated. “The potential is just jaw-dropping,” it wrote in a recent investor letter.
All of this was happening in California and wouldn’t have been possible without the state’s generous tax credits for zero-emission vehicles, which accounted for nearly all of Tesla’s gross profit in its early years. (The federal government also helped, providing Tesla with a $465 million loan in 2010.) Yet Musk’s relationship with California curdled early in the pandemic.
In May 2020, a California assemblywoman criticized Musk for his desire to restart his Bay Area factory amid a surge in COVID-19 infections. “California has highly subsidized a company that has always disregarded worker safety & well-being, has engaged in union busting & bullies public servants,” tweeted Lorena Gonzalez. Musk replied, “Message received.”
Ten days later, Tesla filed paperwork to create a new subsidiary to develop its massive Gigafactory outside Austin. It wasn’t just Gonzalez’s tweet that sent Musk packing. The lawmaker’s message came after weeks of Musk’s chafing against state health measures in California, including his threatening to sue to reopen his factory there. It also followed years in which Musk had begun to expand elsewhere in the country. Texas beckoned. The second-largest state was potentially a huge market for Tesla’s planned electric truck. And its deregulated electricity market was open to new players.
Then came the multiday widespread blackout in February 2021. Musk, who was living in Austin during the storm, was without power for a couple of days. Not long afterward, on a conference call with investors, he was asked about Tesla’s solar division. He waxed on for several minutes about factors transforming the electricity business, including a growing demand for EV charging and a greater frequency of extreme weather events. Incumbent utilities couldn’t act fast enough to keep up, he said, but a network of homes with solar panels and batteries could. “This is profound,” he said to analysts covering Tesla. “I’m not sure how many of you will actually understand this, but this is extremely profound and necessary.”
That August, a new Tesla subsidiary filed to operate as an electricity retailer in Texas.
With a low rumble, the garage door lifted to slowly reveal Michael Danberry, who sported a trim mustache, a black T-shirt, and blue jeans. Two cellphones hung on his belt, one on each side, as if he were some IT gunslinger.
Danberry’s two-story, gable roof house stands in rapidly growing Dripping Springs, a thirty-minute drive southwest of Austin. The home features the same sandstone exterior and starter trees as the rest of his block, but it’s radically different in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. His garage offers a glimpse into Tesla’s vision of a hydrocarbon-free future.
On the day I visited, in September, two Tesla vehicles were parked inside. Both were drawing electricity through what looked like thick, black garden hoses connected to four quietly humming, four-foot-tall white boxes mounted on the wall. Solar panels on the roof feed those large batteries, the Tesla Powerwalls. A decal with Elon Musk’s signature was affixed to each.
Danberry told me that since the beginning of the year, 97 percent of the power running everything in his 2,900-square-foot home—air conditioners, washing machines, and cars included—came from his solar panels. Or, as he put it, “from the fireball in the sky.” He hasn’t purchased gasoline in years. “I don’t pull from the grid anymore,” said the 52-year-old, who retired eight years ago from the Army as a chief warrant officer, having worked as a truck mechanic and later a computer troubleshooter.
In 2020 he bought 26 solar panels and two Tesla Powerwalls. When those didn’t generate all of the electricity his house and cars needed, he bought a dozen more panels and two more Powerwalls. The net cost, after tax incentives, was nearly $46,000. That’s like prepaying between eight and fourteen years’ worth of utility bills and gas station fill-ups. But it wasn’t purely a financial decision for Danberry. After a career marked by military deployments overseas to ensure the protection of global energy supplies, his attitude toward electricity resembles that of someone who shops at farmers’ markets to ensure that his food is locally produced. “I wanted to know where my power was coming from,” he said.
It was a late-summer afternoon, and the thermometer read 97 degrees. Scattered cumulus clouds, with gray bellies and white topsides, sailed across the sky. Danberry pulled out an iPad. A cloud was blocking the sun, but his panels were still generating 1.7 kilowatts. His house was using 3.3 kilowatts, according to the Tesla app. The difference was flowing out of his Powerwalls.
After a few minutes, the cloud covering the sun drifted away. When he looked again at his iPad, his panels were generating 8.6 kilowatts while the house’s usage had dropped to 1.3 kilowatts (likely because the air conditioner or some kitchen appliance had turned off). The balance, 7.3 kilowatts, was flowing into his four Powerwalls. When those hit maximum capacity—each holds enough to run his house for about 24 hours—the excess electricity goes out into the grid, for which Danberry earns credits from the local utility, the Pedernales Electric Cooperative. His house can draw from the grid when necessary, but it’s not dependent on it.
“My last bill was a twenty-nine-cent credit. The one before was a charge of twenty-four cents,” he said. PEC, which serves much of the Hill Country, has 380,000 customers. Fewer than 700 generate enough power from solar panels to send more to the grid than they take from it. That relative few includes Danberry and his wife, Carla. A decade ago, what they’ve done would’ve been impossible for all but the most determined homeowner with a master electrician on speed dial. Now it’s within financial reach of two Army retirees.
Musk has had Texas in his sights since he introduced the Powerwall in 2015. The unveiling took place near Tesla’s then-headquarters in Palo Alto, California, but he pointed to the potential opportunities in Texas. To explain the usefulness of residential batteries, he showed a graph of electricity demand in the state on a typical summer day—when we need twice as much power in the early evening as at 5 a.m. Batteries in homes, he argued, could help to smooth out the need for spikes in producing that electricity.
To attain that goal, Tesla aims to make the Danberry house more of the norm than an oddity in Texas. And the company hopes to be able to signal Powerwalls in garages across the state to discharge electricity simultaneously. By harnessing a few kilowatts from every home, with owners’ consent, it could amass an entire power plant’s worth of electricity. Tesla could sell such a bundled mass of power at a premium, yielding higher returns for Powerwall owners. Doing so, however, involves the approval of a major change by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s predominant power grid operator, and its overseers move slowly.
Tesla wasn’t in the mood to wait, so the company ran a test in 64 Texas houses in the spring of 2022. In the middle of the night, it sent commands to the homes’ Powerwalls, which responded by sending back electricity within five seconds. Arushi Sharma Frank, Tesla’s policy head for U.S. energy markets, explained this result to the Texas Public Utility Commission in June. She wore a black T-shirt that read “LFDECARB,” which stands for “Let’s F—ing Decarbonize.”
Sitting next to her, Liz Jones, a vice president at Oncor, which operates the wires that bring electricity to homes throughout North Texas, looked as if she had swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. “Oncor was not advised of the test,” she said.
Tesla soon persuaded the state to approve a large-scale pilot, involving more than a thousand homes, which began in early 2023. In December, it publicly launched Tesla Electric to its Texas customers, a year and a half after it filed for permission to operate as an electricity retailer. “Together with other Tesla Electric members, you can maximize the value of your solar energy while using your Powerwall storage to add more renewable electricity to the grid,” said the company’s pitch.
It rolled out a similar program in California last summer. To get a sense of how it might work in Texas, consider the experience of Mark Gillund, a pharmacist who lives with his wife and daughter near Sacramento. Between mid-August and mid-September, Tesla signaled his home batteries to send electricity back to the grid about a dozen times. Gillund didn’t have to do anything, other than click on a message on his phone saying he wanted to participate. He was paid $575 for the use of his batteries. It was, he told me, some of the easiest money he ever made. “EVs and batteries and solar are the future. Anybody going gung-ho to that is doing a good thing for society,” he said.
At the same time that Tesla has been inching toward becoming an ERCOT player, Governor Abbott has continued to bash solar and wind power as unreliable, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has vilified money managers who dared shift some of their investments away from oil and gas companies, at the urging of clients concerned about climate change. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Abbott and Patrick, along with many members of the Texas Legislature, count oil and gas interests among their biggest campaign contributors.
Yet there’s a growing awareness that sustainable energy will increasingly drive profits and employment in the state’s biggest industry, and that future is coming quickly. (Abbott and Patrick might recognize this too, at least in private, which may contribute to their embrace of Musk.) There’s a lot of money to be made in this energy transition, and if there’s anything that trumps oil and gas in Texas, it’s money.
Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist in Austin, including for fossil fuel interests, notes that Texas has gone through transformational economic shifts before, from cattle and cotton to petroleum and petrochemicals. “Texans have been aggressive in terms of how they approach opportunities. They don’t rest on their laurels, and they’re not afraid of change. Typically, they are always looking for the next big, lucrative deal,” he said. “That’s simply who Texans are, and that’s why Elon Musk is Elon Musk.”
Indeed, Texas is already tilting toward sustainable energy, even if some of its leaders are loath to admit it. Texas is tops in producing electricity from wind turbines and will likely pass California as the nation’s top solar powerhouse by this summer. And a majority of Texans favor further shifts to reliance on solar, wind, and geothermal power sources, according to a recent University of Houston survey.
Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican state senator whose district stretches from the Houston suburbs to Corpus Christi, said Musk’s penchant for dreaming big is on-brand for our state. “Just as the movie Giant told the tale of Texas balancing between ranching and oil fortunes,” she said, “the story of Elon Musk might be the new tale of Texas finding its way in the twenty-first century.”
Republican state senator Robert Nichols, who represents a large swath of East Texas, told me the state’s oil and gas leaders understand that there can be a harmonious future that includes Musk’s solar panels and batteries. “I’ve never heard anybody in the oil patch—and they are in my office all the time—say anything negative about the direction that he’s headed and the things he’s doing on the electric vehicles,” he said. “I don’t see a conflict.” Maybe Musk is already rubbing off on Texas, even as Texas has rubbed off on him.
Oil and babies are good for society, Elon Musk told a scrum of reporters on his way into an energy conference in Stavanger, Norway. It was late August, a couple of weeks after the shareholder meeting, and Musk was sounding a bit more Texan. Not in his accent but through his acknowledgment that fossil fuels will be necessary for decades to come.
As a brass ensemble brightly played a march nearby, he expressed his appreciation for Norway’s love affair with electric vehicles. Sixty-five percent of cars sold in the Scandinavian nation in 2021 were electric, the highest share of any country, compared with 4.5 percent in the United States. “Thank you very much for that,” he said.
A local reporter asked whether Norway, a nation long enriched by its offshore oil-and-gas deposits, should continue to drill for fossil fuels. The Musk who had twelve years earlier toasted his employees with the words “f— oil” stopped and considered. It had been a long summer in Europe, marked by shockingly high energy prices and concerns about shortages. Earlier in the year, Russia had drastically reduced how much natural gas it sent to Europe, after European Union sanctions prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I think realistically we do need to use oil and gas in the short term, because otherwise civilization would crumble,” Musk said. “I think any reasonable person would conclude that.”
More questions about energy followed, after which he drastically changed the subject, bringing up the declining global birth rate. “I think it’s important that people have enough babies to sort of support civilization,” he said. The brass band finished the march and began playing Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
More babies and more batteries—Musk remains consistent on both topics. With three women (two of whom now live in Texas and a third to whom he was formerly married), he has ten children that he has publicly acknowledged. He’s likewise demonstrated his commitment to battery technology, not only small ones for homes but also enormous ones that can be located near solar farms and electrical substations.
If you could cover a portion of the Texas Panhandle—say, the entirety of about four of the region’s 26 counties—with solar panels and batteries, Musk has said, you could generate enough power for the entire United States. With enough battery packs (a couple of billion) and enough panels to power them, you could provide electricity to the whole world. “Is that an impossible number? It is not,” he promised.
Tesla showed the value of such big units in early 2017, when the regional power grid in the state of South Australia faced an energy crisis. Its version of ERCOT turned off electricity to many customers during a heat wave, to keep the grid from collapsing. Tesla declared it could quickly build a giant battery to help. One of Australia’s richest men, a tech CEO named Mike
Cannon-Brookes, tweeted at Musk. “How serious are you about this?” he asked. Musk replied, “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?” Cannon-Brookes was jazzed. “Legend!” he tweeted back.
Conservative politicians were blaming renewables for the blackouts (sound familiar, Texas?), while Musk and Cannon-Brookes, two tech billionaires, sought to demonstrate that a combination of renewable power and battery storage could improve the reliability of electrical grids. Once the contracts were signed, it took Musk and Tesla 56 days to install the battery. It could hold enough power for 30,000 homes for eight hours or 60,000 homes for four.
After that success, the technology began to take off, including in Texas. In 2018 there were about 100 megawatts’ worth of large batteries linked to the grid managed by ERCOT; there are more than 2,750 megawatts today, with another 6,600 megawatts under development. That’s enough to store power for 1.3 million homes during periods of peak demand. Not all of these batteries are built by Tesla, but it has a sizable share of the market. Musk had believed it could be done in South Australia, and Tesla proved it, helping to open the floodgates.
A former Tesla executive told me that Musk has an unparalleled ability to drive his team to accomplish the impossible, on an unreasonable timeline. “It’s one of his superpowers. He reaches into the amygdala and, you know, tweaks it,” the executive said. “It’s fear based, let’s be clear. It’s like ten percent inspiration, ninety percent threats. But that’s how he does it. And he gets people to do things on timelines that they don’t think they can do.”
Tesla has long had a cultlike following for its fun, fast cars, but at some point in recent years, the cult of Tesla morphed into the cult of Elon Musk. His followers eagerly await his every move, including a South Padre resident who set up several round-the-clock live streams of SpaceX’s launchpads and a retired Air Force pilot whose drone videos of happenings at the Austin Gigafactory regularly draw tens of thousands of views.
On a cold, windy afternoon in November, I tagged along with a group of the faithful planning to bring Musk a six-ton aluminum statue. They gathered in parking lot F of the Circuit of the Americas, the Formula 1 racetrack a fifteen-minute drive south of the Gigafactory. Several dozen Musk devotees milled about, listening to a deejay play electronic dance music. Among them, Robert Hernandez, an entrepreneur from San Antonio, puffed on a cigar as he described Musk in messianic terms. “I believe the man upstairs put Elon on earth to be the future,” he said.
The night before, I had met Ashley Sansalone, the man responsible for hatching the plan to bring the statue to Musk. “I think, as of right now, he’s the most relevant human being on the planet,” Sansalone told me, sitting in a plush chair in a private social club in East Austin, taking clandestine pulls from a vape pen. His statue stunt was, at its heart, an elaborate marketing campaign. Sansalone was promoting a new cryptocurrency he dubbed Elon GOAT Token, to recognize that Musk is the greatest of all time. If the GOAT himself accepted the statue or even acknowledged it on social media, interest in the tokens might soar. This is what passes for entrepreneurship as we lurch toward the middle of the twenty-first century—supplicants seeking the blessing of King Elon by proffering a pagan idol.
The statue sat on a 48-foot-long trailer in the racetrack’s parking lot. Its rocket portion measured about 30 feet long and was rigged to shoot flames out of seven ports on its base. Straddling the rocket was the body of a goat, topped by an oversized head of Musk that, in a certain light, resembled that of Chairman Mao. If an art car and a crypto bro had an unholy coupling, this statue might be the runt of the resulting litter. A hydraulic lift could raise the rocket’s conical tip about a dozen feet, but it had to be lowered while the truck was moving so that Musk’s face wouldn’t smash into an overpass.
“It evokes emotion, and usually the emotion people get is ‘What the f— is this?’ ” Danny Wang, the statue’s Southern California designer, told me. It cost $600,000 to fabricate, twice as much as the iconic eight-foot-tall Stevie Ray Vaughan statue beside Lady Bird Lake, in Austin, cost back in 1993, even accounting for inflation. (To be fair, Stevie Ray can’t shoot fire out of his bronze ass.)
As sunset neared, three or four dozen cars and two decommissioned Dallas Area Rapid Transit buses lined up behind the truck hauling the statue. Notably, there was only a single Tesla in the caravan. We left the parking lot bound for the Gigafactory, looking like a funeral procession in which the corpse was encased in a space-age sarcophagus.
A red traffic light soon cleaved the group in two, and most of us lost sight of the giant silver head of Elon Musk. We were suddenly leaderless. The real Musk didn’t show when we reached the Gigafactory. Instead we were turned away by security personnel driving Tesla coupes with strobing green lights on their dashboards. Sansalone eventually took the statue back to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives.
He and most of the others who undertook this misadventure speak of Musk as a genius who has crafted a key to unlocking a better future—a future in which the sun provides all the energy we could ever need and concerns about catastrophic climate change have been alleviated. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I drove home that day, was their desire for such a leader blinding them to his shortcomings?
Today, Musk lives in Austin—somewhere. He tweeted in 2021 that his “primary home” was a $50,000 house in Boca Chica that he rented from SpaceX, but at the time he was also living in the guesthouse of the lakefront Austin mansion of billionaire Ken Howery, whom he met at PayPal. That house sold in 2017 for $12 million.
News articles have also reported that Musk sometimes resides at the Commodore Perry Estate, a 1928 Mediterranean-style villa transformed into an upscale Austin hotel, and that he’s hatching plans to build a private compound for himself in Bastrop County. Then there is the 5,000-square-foot house in the swank suburb of West Lake Hills, purchased in 2021 by a Neuralink executive three months before she gave birth to twins fathered by Musk. In court documents regarding the kids, Musk lists that address as his home.
He has often shuttled between Austin and Boca Chica over the past couple of years, according to a Twitter account that reports the comings and goings of his private jet. While in the Rio Grande Valley, he appears to spend most of his time working on SpaceX. His Austin whereabouts are more mysterious, at least partly because he reportedly asks some of those whom he spends time with to sign nondisclosure agreements. Every so often, social media posts highlight a night on the town. For instance, in January 2021 he attended a comedy show at Stubb’s, a barbecue joint in downtown Austin, where he hung out with Houston comedian Mo Amer, Austin restaurateur C. K. Chin, and podcaster Joe Rogan, another California transplant embraced by Texas conservatives.
Since Musk moved to Texas, his ambitions have mushroomed and his politics have seemingly evolved. He has publicly embraced right-wing positions such as overturning former president Trump’s banishment from Twitter and railed against the “woke mind virus.” He declared that he voted for a Republican for the first time—South Texas’s Mayra Flores, in a special congressional election in 2022 (suggesting his legal residence is actually in the RGV). In recent months, his regular Twitter pronouncements (“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”) have often infuriated the liberal Tesla customer base.
Musk’s contradictory ideas have piled up over time. He has promised that our planet isn’t doomed, but he’s also dead set on colonizing Mars to protect against any apocalyptic event that might befall Earth. He has spent a career bad-mouthing fossil fuels but then acknowledges their necessity for the foreseeable future. Even his newfound Texas boosterism seems calculated in light of his February announcement that Tesla will open an engineering “headquarters” in Silicon Valley. (Or maybe it’s an admission that if you want to hire software engineers, the fishing remains better in Northern California than in Central Texas.)
He paints himself as a passionate free speech defender but has deplatformed Twitter users who write things about him that he doesn’t like. His purchase of the social media giant was seemingly impulsive. He offered to buy it for $44 billion in April 2022 but soon after tried to renege. Only after Twitter sued to force him to consummate the deal did he agree to proceed at his original offer price, despite a steep decline in the stock value.
Musk’s Twitter tenure has so far proved disastrous. He has alienated many devoted users of the service with his mercurial management style and decisions both inscrutable (allowing anyone to buy the blue check mark that previously signified trusted accounts) and abhorrent (allowing purveyors of hate speech back onto the platform). His social media foray has also been widely perceived as a massive distraction from his work at Tesla as well as a torching of the goodwill that many customers had felt toward the carmaker.
Musk personally has lost more than $200 billion since moving to Texas, because of a precipitous drop in the value of Tesla stock. At the start of this year, he was worth $137 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making him merely the second-richest person in the world. His fortune rose to more than $180 billion by late February, and he reclaimed the top spot, by a narrow margin, over Frenchman Bernard Arnault, chief executive of luxury goods firm LVMH.
He’s faced other, more troubling challenges also—some of his own making. Last May, it was reported that SpaceX had paid $250,000 to settle a sexual misconduct claim against him brought by a crew member on a private jet. And recently, he was on trial for securities fraud related to a 2018 tweet about converting Tesla into a private company. A jury in February found him not liable in that case, but he may have opened himself to new legal action with tweets in early March in which he publicly mocked a former employee who has muscular dystrophy (he later apologized). Tesla, meanwhile, faces charges pending with the U.S. Department of Labor over alleged pay violations during the construction of the Gigafactory.
At its peak, in November 2021, Tesla was valued at $1.24 trillion. At the beginning of this year, it was worth $334 billion, 73 percent less. Not just because of Twitter, of course. The other reasons include growing electric-vehicle competition from other car companies, a decline in demand in China, and rising interest rates that have made borrowing to buy a new car more expensive.
Yet Tesla remains financially strong, with little debt and $22.2 billion in cash. In March the company announced it would build a fifth Gigafactory producing EVs, near Monterrey, Mexico. After years of operating at a loss, it has become one of the most profitable corporations in the country. In 2022 Tesla’s net income was $12.6 billion—ahead of that posted by Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola. Thanks to its focus on batteries and electric vehicles, it remains well positioned to benefit from the growing push to burn fewer hydrocarbons, including large federal government subsidies passed last year as part of the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act.
Still, Musk has exposed himself as a business magnate for whom business isn’t enough. Steering the path of global energy away from fossil fuels would be a monumental accomplishment, but he doesn’t seem to be satisfied by that task.
It brings to mind the cautionary tale of Glenn McCarthy, one of Texas’s great oil wildcatters, after World War II. McCarthy, who was the model for Jett Rink in the novel and film Giant, possessed a knack for finding crude in the marshes around Houston. It made him rich, but the energy business wasn’t enough for him, so he built a hotel. Not just any hotel—the biggest and most exquisitely detailed in the Western Hemisphere.
The grand opening of the Shamrock Hotel, in March 1949, was a celebration of both Houston and Glenn McCarthy. Movie star Dorothy Lamour arrived on a specially chartered train from Hollywood and planted a kiss on his cheek. Kirk Douglas and Ginger Rogers and Governor Beauford Jester attended. So many guests crowded into the dining rooms for the opening gala that the waiters had trouble moving around. The audio system didn’t work, forcing NBC to scrap a planned radio broadcast from the hotel’s ballroom. The Houston Post called it a couple hours of “magnificent turmoil.”
McCarthy’s moment in the sunshine was short-lived. He borrowed heavily to build his dream hotel, which cost $20 million (about $250 million today). He pushed his oil fields too hard to generate cash to pay the debt. By January 1951, McCarthy was broke and turned over ownership of the Shamrock, as well as of his oil fields, to his primary lender.
Musk, in similar fashion, took on massive debt, with his Tesla shares as collateral, to buy Twitter, which has lost money nearly every year since it went public in 2013 and has never demonstrated it is on a path to sustained profitability. And like McCarthy, Musk increasingly surrounds himself with celebrities, from Dave Chappelle to the swells at the Met Gala in New York City.
In Texas, we love our energy business but rarely our energy magnates. To seek national fame or some sense of validation, they look outside the industry. Musk certainly has. Which is a shame. Finding a way to provide more energy than ever, while tackling climate change, is a global-scale, generational challenge. Musk—and Texas—could lead the effort. Too bad he doesn’t tweet about that more often.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the title “The Wildcatter.” Subscribe today.