Musk re-boots plan to “make roofs come alive” as Tesla unveils new solar tile

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Tesla launches version three of its solar glass roof, with bigger and more efficient tiles, but target market moves on from Desperate Housewives.

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Tesla Motors
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Tesla has launched version three of its much discussed solar glass roof tile, which it says is now ready to be rolled out onto thousands of houses a week in the US, at a price point below the cost of a new roof plus solar panels.

The latest iteration of what Elon Musk describes as the “third leg of the stool” for a sustainable energy future was announced via webcast on Friday evening (US time), capping off a big week for the EV and battery giant, in which it stunned market doubters with a better than expected profit and manufacturing outlook.

This time around, however, it was a decidedly more low-key affair than when the solar roof was first launched in October 2016, at the rather sensational  Hollywood location of the set for Universal Studios TV series Desperate Housewives.

After the 2016 fanfare followed three years of embarrassed silence on the subject from Tesla – and very few actual installs of the product – during which time we now know that significant problems on the manufacturing and installation side of the equation were being ironed out.

That said, Musk’s vision for roofs that actually do something (beyond, you know, providing shelter) is still very much in tact.

“We can make roofs come alive,” he said in the webcast. “In the future it will be odd for roofs to be dormant or dead and not gathering energy.

“You have to ask yourself, what is the future that you want? I think that 20 years years from now, you will look around the neighbourhood and that’s how it will be.”

So what has actually changed since October 2016? Not a great deal when it comes to the claims being made around the product. Just as he did three years ago, Musk says that Tesla’s solar glass roof (V3) will cost less than putting on a new regular roof plus solar panels.

“This is to the best of our knowledge accurate,” he said during the webcast. “I mean it’s not going to be correct everywhere… but I think maybe 80 per cent of the time or more the Tesla Solar Glass Roof should make the most economic sense and look the best and last the longest (25 years).”

“In a nutshell,” Musk added later, “if you’re re-roofing or getting a new roof, I feel quite confident this is a smart move.

“But if your roof is already new, it will not be a smart move financially. … If you have an existing roof that has a long life left to it, get solar panels.”

On efficiency, Musk and the team say the conversion of sunlight to energy by the solar tiles takes a ”knockdown” in the order of 10 per cent-ish to accommodate the better aesthetics – or solar cell invisibility.

“Ideally it’s like a single-digit difference effect on the energy efficiency on a cell level, but you can put far more cells on the roof,” Musk said on Friday.

The appearance of the solar glass roof is also mostly the same – although the individual tiles have been made a lot bigger – with just the textured black glass available for order at this stage.

Musk says the company aims to introduce other variants, such as a “Mediterranean” clay tile lookalike, in six to nine months’ time, but admits that this will be a major challenge.

As for manufacture and installation, this is where the most progress seems to have been made, affording Tesla the confidence to again start talking about rolling the technology out at scale.

The company said during the briefing that it had increased the power density of the tiles, while dramatically reducing the amount of parts – and thus the complexity of installation – by more than half.

“We really wanted to achieve an installation time that was faster than a new roof plus the installation of panels,” Musk said.

“Doing an entire roof in eight hours is quite important. (Customers) should be able to go to work and come back and have a new roof that’s generating electricity – that’s our goal.”

All said, Musk is forecasting that installations will extend to “north of 1000 roofs” per week as quickly as possible, and from there chart exponential growth.

“Several months from now, we (will) be able to do 1000 roofs a week… And then longer-term 10,000 roofs a week,” he said.

Whether or not this will actually become a reality remains to be seen – and it’s fair to say there is plenty of scepticism after the 2016 false start. US-based new site Greentech Media on Friday published an article titled Five reasons not to get too excited about Tesla’s new solar roof.

But as is his way, Musk – who even seems a little sceptical about the whole solar glass roofs thing himself – is not for turning.

“It’s kind of like a weird and odd product,” he said during a particularly frank moment of reflection during the webcast last week. “It’s like, ‘why would anyone make a solar roof, how strange?’”

“But it’s just a thing that should be, and so we’re going to make it. And it’s just going to be real confusing, because there’s like no actual product like this.”

“On a percentage basis, it’s going to grow like kelp on steroids,” he added. “But so many things have to be sorted out.

“But I think it’s going to be a very exciting product and I think it’s something people will want to have on their roof.”

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