Lessons from Modi’s Silicon Valley visit

All prime ministerial visits are calibrated for a specific goal, be it economic, diplomatic, political, or cultural. That is true of all Indian prime <g data-gr-id="71">ministers</g> but it is especially true of Narendra Modi. Once you get past his gushing, uncritical fan base, those goals become sharper.

A striking example of that is his visit to Silicon Valley. in general, and Tesla Energy headquarters and Facebook town hall meeting in particular. The Prime Minister’s choice of South African-born Canadian-American technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s facility in Silicon Valley on Saturday was significant for its potential whose details are not well known to many.

The name Tesla, of course, is Musk’s tribute to the Serbian-born American Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856 to January 7, 1943), widely regarded as the father of the electrical age given his pioneering work in alternating current and induction motor in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was by a wide consensus a true-blue genius whose range of scientific vision stretched from presaging hand-held devices carrying data we now call smartphones to robotics and limitless free energy.

Perhaps the primary objective of the visit can be found in a background to the company’s website where it explains: “Tesla Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery designed to store energy at a residential level for load shifting, backup power, and self-consumption of solar power generation. Powerwall consists of Tesla’s lithium-ion battery pack, liquid thermal control system and software that receives dispatch commands from a solar inverter. The unit mounts seamlessly on a wall and is integrated with the local grid to harness the excess power and give customers the flexibility to draw energy from their own reserve.”

What Powerwall does is remove the need for the hugely <g data-gr-id="56">capital intensive</g> power plants, environmental costs and damage and expensive distribution network because it stores power in the Powerwall generated from solar panels on the roof. What mobile phones are to telephone, Powerwall could potentially be to electricity. It makes electricity more personalised. Priced right, this can transform India’s energy needs as it can around the world.

Currently, Powerwall is priced at $3,500 for 10kWh and $3,000 for 7kWh units without the inverter and installation. While a large number of Indians can afford this, if the eventual objective of the Modi government is to transform rural electrification then the price needs to come down significantly. It operates between the temperature ranging from minus 4°F to 110°F, i.e. minus 20°C to 43°C. While its efficiency under lower temperatures in India is of no consequence because it does not get that cold anywhere here, the higher numbers could be a bit tricky. Summer temperatures do routinely rise to the top end of <g data-gr-id="57">Powerwall’s</g> range and even higher. It needs to be tested under those conditions.

Weighing 110 kilograms with dimensions of 51.2” x 33.9” x 7.1” this battery pack is a reasonably portable power source. As Musk explains, unlike other systems Powerwall does not need a separate room for its storage because it can be mounted on any wall. Guaranteed for ten years, <g data-gr-id="58">Powerwall</g> or an Indian version of it could be a revolutionary solution for the country where electricity shortages are chronic. The sun is unlikely to go off anytime soon and it bathes India with its energy.

It is not clear what specifically Musk and Modi might have discussed, but it may not be a bad idea to consider a Tesla pilot project anywhere in India. Given India’s relatively low and careful per capita power consumption (700 kWh per capita in 2012, according to the World Bank compared to 12,954 kWh in the United States) Powerwall or a cheaper version of it could be a potentially game-changing solution.

That explains the Prime Minister’s engagement with Musk, who is often jocularly compared to the Marvel comic book superhero Iron Man also known as Tony Stark because of Musk’s varied entrepreneurial interests, including rocket science and space travel.

Modi’s town hall-style meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was perhaps closer to his larger socio-cultural and political goals of keeping his vast following on social media abreast of the goings-on in his government in the face of creeping doubts over its performance so far. Being the first social media-savvy politician of India with a keen eye for what to let consumers enjoy, the Prime Minister was at home at Facebook’s headquarters. What perhaps stood out from a political standpoint was his observation that social media had created an environment where instead of facing the electorate every five years politicians now faces it every five minutes with millions parsing every word and offering their snap judgment.

In yet another brilliant repackaging of the Manmohan Singh government’s ambitious plan to connect 600,000 villages and 250,000 Panchayats, the current Prime Minster has managed to very successfully sell his “Digital India” vision which draws on many of the same ideas. Making broadband connectivity universal in India through optical fiber was a key feature of the last government’s plan, some of which was already in various stages of implementation when it lost the 2014 general election. It is to Modi’s credit though that he has generated remarkable enthusiasm about it to the extent that Facebook offered its users a way to add a semi-transparent screen on their profile pictures in the colours of the Indian flag. It is part of Facebook’s “Support Digital India” campaign.

In the 31-year-old Zuckerberg, the 65-year-old Prime Minister appears to have found a muse whose youth can only help Modi expand his global appeal.

(Mayank Chhaya is a journalist and writer who ran a media company in Silicon Valley. The views expressed are personal)
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