Tesla Introduces New Solar Roof Tiles, But What Exactly Are They?
What exactly are Tesla’s new Solar Roof Tiles?
On Friday, October 28th, in typical grand fashion, Elon Musk unveiled a new Tesla product that he claimed would revolutionize the solar industry. In front of 200 invited guests, and with 4 of the posh homes from the Desperate Housewives set in Universal Studios behind him, he asked if attendees had noticed that the 4 normal-looking houses were in fact solar homes with Tesla’s newest product, solar roof tiles.
Musk called it the future of solar. Looking at the tiles, you’d never know they were in fact producing solar electricity. They look like every other roof tile you see, but is it really the future of solar?
How do the Tesla solar tiles work?
Basically, Tesla has embedded a single solar cell into each solar tile, which are presumably connected together by wires sitting underneath the layer of solar roof tiles. On top of the cell lies a layer of tempered glass that is colored and textured in four different styles to match traditional roofing styles like terra cotta and slate. The actual solar cells, Musk noted, would be produced by Panasonic and Tesla will provide the other components and assembly.
The efficiency of the solar tiles are about 2% less than standard solar panels, Musk said, leaving us to assume an efficiency of around 16%. The drop in efficiency is due to the structure of the glass and Tesla is currently working on a coating that will allow the glass to absorb more light, instead of being reflected, thereby increasing efficiency of the solar cell.
Musk said the tiles will be available in around 9 months (about July 2017). The production of the tiles is dependent on Tesla buying out the SolarCity. Many industry analysts say this move is rounding out Tesla’s offering, creating an energy ecosystem with their electric vehicles, battery systems, and now solar panels.
A New Take on Solar Panels
Much fanfare has been made of this new development, despite solar tiles existing for over 10 years. What separates Tesla’s new tiles from existing stock is the much more ‘conventional’ look of the solar tiles (in other words, they don’t look like solar panels).
Previous solar tiles were the same shape and thickness of conventional tiles, but they still had the shiny, dark blue surface typical of solar panels. Tesla has hidden the solar cell underneath a glass covering that, when viewed from the ground looks like any other shingle. But from above, sunlight is able to penetrate through the glass and to the solar cell.
The biggest move forward is that Tesla’s solar panels aren’t installed on top of the roof, or even integrated into the roof. It’s the fact that solar panels are the roof that makes it such a huge step forward. From an aesthetic standpoint, that’s what makes these solar panels the best yet.
Musk claimed the solar panels will be comparable in price to installing a new roof and continuing to purchase electricity from the utility, but it’s difficult to believe that these solar tiles – at least at the onset – would be viable for anyone outside the very high-end market. Maybe Musk is applying Tesla’s electric vehicle trickle-down strategy to solar (the idea that introducing a new, expensive technology into a high-end market that can afford those high costs will lead to faster technological advancements and therefore lower costs in the future, creating a situation where everyone can afford it).
No matter their business strategy, these solar tiles signify a maturing of the solar industry and a broadening of the market. For as long as the solar industry has existed, it has focused on increasing the efficiency of solar panels and decreasing the price, with little thought to aesthetics.
Tesla is introducing a product that will broaden solar’s appeal to homeowners who are turned off by ‘ugly’ solar panels. In the future, we’ll have low-cost installations with conventional thick-framed solar panels (like you see today) or you can choose a more expensive camouflaged solar shingle. Tesla is filling out the market space.
So, in the future, homeowners interested in solar have more options. They can buy a low-cost Kia solar installation, or they can choose a high-end Lexus (or better, Tesla…) option.
Possible Challenges with the Tesla Solar Roof Tiles
Tesla is known for pushing forward the electric vehicle industry and these solar tiles are poised to do the same thing for solar, but a few unique challenges arise from solar tiles.
First, as noted before, the presumably high cost of the solar installation will make the tiles appealing for only the high end market – at least in the beginning. While they claim the cost of the installation is comparable to a reroof and purchasing utility electricity, most homeowners go solar for the potentially huge financial savings they can see, which Musk didn’t really mention in his press release.
If homeowners aren’t saving money, why go solar?
Home value can increase, especially if the installation is purchased as opposed to lease or power purchase agreement financing. For those wealthy homeowners who have an environmental mindset, the fact that you are producing your own green energy – while keeping your home’s curb appeal intact – might be enough of a draw. But as we’ve seen with earlier Tesla products there’s a tremendous draw to new, attractive technology. This new solar roof may be difficult for anyone with a Tesla electric car to resist.
From a practical standpoint, the issue of where and how many tiles to install arises. In the US, south-facing roofs see higher energy production than west or east-facing roofs (and especially north facing roofs) and so most homeowners install solar panels there. The obvious installation then for solar tiles would be on south-facing roofs, but what do you do on the other roof planes? Do you cover the entire roof in solar tiles, spending quite a bit of money for little return? Or do you only install solar tiles on south-facing roofs and try to find a matching traditional shingle for other roof sections?
It will be interesting to see if Tesla produces identical non-solar tiles that allow for a consistent, but cost-effective solar roof. Customers who don’t like the bulky look of traditional solar panels and who can afford solar tiles, probably don’t want their roof to look like a patchwork of different tiles.
In the upcoming 9 months before the tiles are introduced, Tesla will hopefully release more details on the cost as well as technology and efficiency of the solar tiles. Until then, we can only conjecture what the specifics will be and the market’s reaction to this new technology. Tesla is known for introducing innovative approaches to renewable technologies and, because of Tesla’s trickle-down strategy, these solar tiles have the potential to change the way all solar homes, regardless of cost, look in the future.
Photos by SolarCity – www.solarcity.com