Elon Musk. Even his name sounds exotic – like a space man, or a super hero. In fact, the word musk originates from muská, the Sanskrit word for testicle. It’s apt, for there’s no denying the man has balls.

Clean tech God. Entrepreneur. Silicon Valley punk. The coolest nerd on the planet. Before his reign is over, Elon Musk may well come to be known as 'The Man Who Saved Humanity.

Musk's vision goes a little something like this: every home will not only produce, but store, its own power. Energy poverty will be a thing of the past, because the price of this technology will be so rock-bottom low. Mankind's greenhouse gas emissions will be a quaint memory of the distant past, and human-induced climate change will be remembered as nothing more than a close call. Travel will be cheap, silent, clean, safe and lightning fast. And, as a form of insurance - just in case none of this works out - we can all go live on Mars where Musk will have developed a thriving colony.

The astonishing thing is not so much that he is advancing toward these goals, but the pace at which he is doing it.

Head to YouTube for an astonishing drone-filmed flyover of the half-built 'Gigafactory', where in just five years' time as many lithium ion batteries will be manufactured in this 142-rugby-field-sized behemoth as were produced this year the world over. It's like seeing a physical manifestation of Musk's colossal ambition.

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The Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, which will produce batteries for Tesla vehicles and battery storage.
The Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, which will produce batteries for Tesla vehicles and battery storage.

Some of those batteries will be used to power the half a million Tesla vehicles planned for annual production. Tesla, in case you haven't heard, is the first new American auto maker in almost a century, and is turning out the sexiest electric vehicles the world has ever seen. They look like a family sedan, yet will drop a Porsche in a drag race, and go 400km or more on a full charge. The Roadster, Model X and Model S were, and still are, priced strictly for the well-heeled (and consequently sell in the expected modest numbers), but all roads lead to the much anticipated Model 3, which Musk has promised will cost less than US$35,000.

The remainder of this lithium ion battery extravaganza will go into Tesla's remarkable new initiative, the Powerwall, a battery storage system designed for homes, businesses and even utilities - and released last month to claims of 'game-changer' the world over. The cost of the smallest Powerwall - with storage for 7kWh of power, about half that of an efficient home's daily consumption - is just US$3000. You could almost hear the jaws of battery makers around the world hitting the floor.

The battery factory is not the only giga development in Musk's technological quiver. Every three minutes, another American signs up with Solar City, the company which is headed by Musk's cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive, and chaired by Musk.

To keep pace, they currently need an awful lot of photovoltaic solar panels, but for what they envisage in the future, they need panels on a scale not yet imagined. The sod was turned on another gigantic factory in Buffalo, New York last September which, when operational, will turn out a gigawatt of panels each year. The factory will cover 92,000 square metres. Sound big? It's not nearly big enough. Musk and the Rives have promised to follow it with one or more significantly larger manufacturing plants.

Here's their thinking: "Given that there is excess supplier capacity today, this may seem counter-intuitive to some who follow the solar industry. What we are trying to address is not the lay of the land today, where there are indeed too many suppliers, most of whom are producing relatively low photonic efficiency solar cells at uncompelling costs, but how we see the future developing. Without decisive action to lay the groundwork today, the massive volume of affordable, high efficiency panels needed for unsubsidised solar power to outcompete fossil fuel grid power simply will not be there when it is needed."

This quote captures the business case for all of Musk's businesses: an unlikely marriage of technology, capitalism and altruism.

Along with the cars and trains (see story below), the batteries and the solar panels, Elon Musk also dreams of space travel. It's where many of his detractors believe he departs from reality and, on the face of it, that charge seems reasonable.

Dreaming of eventually building an experimental greenhouse on Mars, he went to Russia to look at a refurbished rocket that might do the job of getting there. On the plane home, with a back-of-an-A4-sized-envelope calculation, Musk worked out that building his own rocket would cost just a fraction of the US$8m the Russians were asking for.

SpaceX was born, with the long-term goal of achieving a "true space-faring civilisation." But, in the meantime, Musk has found a way for SpaceX to make money, winning a services contract with NASA for the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Musk says that developing the capability to colonise other planets may serve as an insurance policy for the survival of the human species. "An asteroid or a super volcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Humankind evolved over millions of years, but in the last sixty years atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball-or go extinct."

Yesterday Elon Musk turned 44. On June 28, 1971 he was born into apartheid-era Pretoria, South Africa, the son of Maye and Errol Musk, a Canadian-born dietician and model (who, now in her sixties, is still very much in demand - modelmayemusk.com), and an engineer with his own firm, respectively. He has a younger brother, Kimbal, also an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and environmentalist, and who sits on the board of Tesla and SpaceX and a sister, Tosca, an award-winning producer and film director.

Musk's mental prowess became evident early on, and was realised by his mother when she found him reading Encyclopedia Brittanica at age nine.

His parents divorced the next year, after which the children lived a peripatetic existence with their father. In that same year he was tested by researchers at IBM, who found that he had one of the highest aptitudes for computer programming that they had ever seen.

Already ahead of his teacher in the subject, he was allowed to do his own thing, and turned his attention to creating a computer game called Blastar. Soon after it was completed - in a pattern that would persist throughout his career - he sold it for $500 to a gaming magazine.

The brothers' entrepreneurial spirit was evident early on when, as teenagers, Elon and Kimbal decided, without permission from their parents, to open a games arcade, somehow progressing to the point of securing a lease on a building and having arcade machines delivered before it was discovered by their horrified parents and quashed.

By 1988, the brothers had finished school and decided to leave South Africa before they became eligible for military service. "Growing up in Apartheid South Africa was pretty surreal. We didn't support that government. We didn't believe in it," said Kimbal Musk.

"The idea of actually going to the military service was really out of the question."
Musk headed for Canada, where he wound up at University in Toronto, rarely attending class, instead resorting to the hasty reading of his text books just prior to exams.

It was here he met his first wife, Canadian author Justine Wilson. During their courtship, Musk achieved a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and got a scholarship for Stanford, which he realised was a mistake and left after just a few days - hungry to pursue his ambition. He had $2000, few friends and was showering at the gym. He called his brother, saying he wanted to start an internet company.

That idea became Zip2, an internet city guide for the newspaper industry, which four years later, in early 1999, was sold for $307m, $22m of which Musk personally pocketed.

He was 28. He immediately went out and bought the world's most expensive high-performance sports car - a McLaren F1.

"At that point I had the choice of retiring and buying an island somewhere and sipping Mai Tais," said Musk. "But that was not of interest to me at all."

Instead he immediately founded his next company. By March, Musk had co-founded X.com, an online financial services and e-mail payment company. A year later, the company merged with Confinity, which had a money transfer service called PayPal.

It took just three years this time, before PayPal was acquired in 2002 by eBay for US$1.5b, of which $180 million Musk personally received.

SpaceX came next, into which Musk piled $100m because no one else was interested. The upshot of his negotiations in Russia, and a limited budget, was that his company figured out how to cut the cost of producing a rocket capable of space travel by a factor of four.

US journalist Max Chafkin describes Musk as the "Henry Ford of space travel. Ford didn't invent the motorcar - he just figured out a way to the automobile commercially viable."

The business model for Solar City was worked planned during the course of a long car trip with his cousins, followed soon after by the founding of Tesla. Musk said that "Solar City was about the generation of renewable energies, and Tesla was about the consumption of renewable energies."

Not only was Tesla the first car manufacturing start-up in almost a century, but it was the first to come out of Silicon Valley. "The skills to develop this technology are present in Silicon Valley, and not present in Detroit," said Musk.

Tesla's cars were fast, good-looking and, from the first model off the production line, tackled the one barrier held up as electric vehicles' main issue: range. The Roadster could do 320km on a single charge.

"The biggest impact that Tesla will have is not the cars that we make ourselves, but the fact that we show that you can make compelling electric cars that people really want to buy," said Musk.

Despite this initial success, by 2007 Tesla had run out of money, and could attract no investors. Musk alone had to make the $20m investment to keep it going. It was a huge risk, but he had no hesitation in taking it. "Tesla was too important to let die," he said.

What's not so well known about Musk's story is how close he came to ruin. Again Tesla ran short of funds, while at the same time SpaceX was suffering from three failed rocket launches. Musk found the money for one final launch, and then came the 2008 financial crash, which also hit Solar City hard when the bank Morgan Stanley bank pulled out as a backer. Then, in December, the TV show Top Gear profiled the Tesla Roadster, claiming it had run out of power after just 55 miles. Musk claimed he had proof it was staged, and sued to prevent re-runs from screening, a case he lost.

"I never thought it was possible for me to have a nervous breakdown, but that was as close as I've come," said Musk.

In the middle of this turmoil, Musk had approached Daimler in Germany with the pitch to make batteries for its Smart Car range. One of his team travelled to Mexico to buy a Smart Car and drive it back to the US, and his team had just four weeks to build a battery and motor small enough to fit into the Smart Car's tiny frame as a demonstration model for the Daimler presentation.

Then, for the third time, Tesla hit the financial rocks. At a board meeting, Musk stood up and announced he was going to raise $40m to keep the company going. "How?" asked the board. "From my own money," he replied. It was the last of his personal funds.

Finally, some luck: the fourth SpaceX launch was a success, and on the strength of it Musk was awarded the $1.6b contract to resupply the International Space Station, a mission which was completed for the first time by a commercial company in 2012.

Daimler also signed a $40m deal with Tesla for the Smart Car's battery supply. The fledgling car company was back in business.

Musk then hired legendary car designer Franz von Holzhausen to create the Model S and then in 2009 took advantage of a $469m state subsidy for alternative energy vehicles to bring it to market, a controversial grant at the time. The New York Times columnist Randall Stross called it the "Bailout of Very, Very High-Net-Worth Individuals Who Invested in Tesla Motors Act," which prompted Musk to call him "a huge douchebag and an idiot" in a TV interview. Stross had to eat his words: the loan was repaid, with interest, nine years ahead of schedule.

Somehow, during this incredible career, Musk had time for a personal life. In 2000, while Paypal was on the rise, he and his university sweetheart Justine Wilson were married, and the couple had their first child - a son. But tragedy struck - ten weeks later the child died from sudden infant death syndrome. The couple went on to have IVF-assisted twin boys in 2004, followed by triplet sons in 2006.

Then, at the lowest ebb of his businesses, things collapsed at home, and he filed for divorce from Wilson in 2008. Stung, Wilson wrote a scathing story soon after for Marie Claire magazine, describing her life with the businessman.

Wilson claimed that Musk's overbearing personality was hard to live with. "He had grown up in the male-dominated culture of South Africa, and the will to compete and dominate that made him so successful in business did not magically shut off when he came home."
In Spring 2008 Wilson was involved in a car crash, and she said it crystallised what her life had become.

"There was a crunch of metal as her car ploughed into mine, and when we skidded to a halt, my first thought wasn't 'Thank God nobody's hurt'. It was: 'my husband is going to kill me'. And in my mind's eye, I could suddenly see myself: a woman who'd gotten very thin, and very blonde, stumbling out of a very expensive car with the front-left wheel smashed in."

As Wilson stated in her article, Musk had met actress Tallulah Riley in 2008, and by 2010 they were married. Bizarrely, in 2012 they divorced, and the next year married again. This second marriage fared no better than the first time around; the couple filed for a second divorce in December last year.

In May this year, it was reported that the couple are back together again. It appears that Musk's personal life mirrors his business life.

The rest, as they, may be history - the Tesla story looks unstoppable, and there's a waiting list to buy one. In the US, Musk has rolled out a Tesla supercharger network, which he has promised will remain free for as long as Tesla exists. Orders for the Powerwall are through the roof.

SpaceX now has more than $4b in revenue under contract. Solar City is booming, having become the largest solar provider in the US.

His particular skill is to make others believe what he dreams.

Vector partners with Tesla

By Grant Bradley

New Zealand utility company Vector has formed a partnership with Tesla to its Powerwall batteries to New Zealand.

Vector's chairman Michael Stiassny, chief executive Simon Mackenzie and group general manager of development Brian Ryan were invited as special guests to the launch event last month where Elon Musk unveiled the new lithium-ion batteries.

Musk told the audience the batteries would be game changing, like cellphones.

"What we'll see is something similar to what happened with cell phones versus land line where cell phones actually leap-frogged the land lines and there wasn't the need to put land lines in a lot of countries."

Vector has been working for some months to cement this "special relationship" with Tesla to provide the Tesla home battery to New Zealand.

"This is the start of a significant change in the energy industry. Tesla is the largest producer of batteries in the world, as well as the most cost effective, and this strong relationship will allow us to take it to the next level across the country," said Mackenzie.

The company said it would release the timing of when the Tesla battery will be available in the next couple of months. However, Sandy Hodge, communications manager for Vector, said the response so far has been "absolutely phenomenal."

Ian Wright driving his Wrightspeed X1 electric car in 2009. Photo: supplied.
Ian Wright driving his Wrightspeed X1 electric car in 2009. Photo: supplied.
The Kiwi who co-founded Tesla

Remember this car? It's the WrightspeedX1, and it could out-sprint a Ferrari. The super electric vehicle was unveiled by Kiwi Ian Wright - that's him behind the wheel - in 2009.

What is not so well known is that Wright was part of the team that co-founded Tesla.

Now, Wright's company has turned its attention to bringing electric power to polluting, gas-guzzling trucks.

The company has already converted 25 FedEx delivery trucks and 17 rubbish collection trucks for the Ratto Group in the US. The cost of conversion is between $150,000 and $200,000 while a new truck costs around $500,000.
The potential is huge: there are 2.2m trucks in the US.

The Hyperloop

It will be an intrepid traveller who hops aboard Elon Musk's Hyperloop for its first commercial passenger journey.

They'll be travelling through a tunnel from which all the air has been sucked, allowing the capsule containing six passengers to travel at 1200km/h. That's a conservative estimate of the speed, with Hyperloop engineers saying in theory the pods could travel at 6500km/h.

The slower speeds - 1200km/h - is across the United States in less than 30 minutes.

Land has been acquired in central California for an eight kilometre pilot project.

"The whole system is vulnerable to a single-point failure," said the inventer of the superconducting Maglev concept, James Powell, in an interview with LiveScience. "The guideway [track] has to be built to very fine tolerances, because if the position of the wall deviates from straightness by a few thousandths of an inch, you could crash."