Elon Musk’s surprise unveiling of Tesla’s ‘solar roof’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 5:14pm

As the sun descended over the old Hollywood set of Desperate Housewives, Elon Musk took to a stage and fired up his presentation about climate change.

It was a strange scene, with hundreds of people crowded into the middle of a subtly artificial suburban neighbourhood.

It’s never going to wear out ... It’s made of quartz. It has a quasi-infinite lifetime
Elon Musk

It wasn’t until about a minute into the speech on Friday that Musk casually let the crowd in on Tesla’s big secret. “The interesting thing is that the houses you see around you are all solar houses,” Musk said. “Did you notice?”

The answer, in short, was no. Like everyone else, I knew we were there to see Musk’s new “solar roof”, whatever that was supposed to mean.

But try as I could as we walked in, I didn’t see anything that looked like it could carry an electric current. If anything, the slate and Spanish clay roofs looked a bit too nice for a television set.

This is the future of solar, Musk proclaimed. “You’ll want to call your neighbours over and say ‘check out the sweet roof’. It’s not a phrase you hear often.”

The roof tiles are made of textured glass. From most viewing angles, they look just like ordinary tiles, but they allow light to pass through from above onto a standard flat solar cell.

The plan is for Panasonic to produce the solar cells and for Tesla to put together the glass tiles and everything that goes along with them.

That’s all predicated on shareholders approving the US$2.2 billion acquisition of SolarCity, the biggest US rooftop installer, on November 17.

Tesla says the tempered glass is “tough as steel” and can weather a lifetime of abuse from the ­elements. It can also be fitted with heating elements to melt snow in colder climates.

“It’s never going to wear out,” Musk said, “It’s made of quartz. It has a quasi-infinite lifetime.”

In a Q&A with reporters after the presentation, Musk said the tiles are comparable to competing high-efficiency solar panels.

The prototypes Tesla engineers are working with reduce the efficiency of the underlying solar cell by just 2 per cent. With further refinement, Musk said he hopes the microscopic louvres responsible for making the tiles appear opaque can be used to boost the efficiency of standard photovoltaic cells. 

The vision presented at ­Universal Studios in Los Angeles is the grand unification of Musk’s clean-energy ambitions. The audience stepped into a future powered entirely by Tesla: a house topped with sculpted Tuscan ­solar tiles, where nighttime ­electricity is stored in two sleek wall-mounted batteries, and where a prototype Tesla electric car is parked on the drive within reach of the home’s car charger. 

Attracting less attention was Tesla’s Powerwall 2, a major upgrade of its home battery for electricity storage. 

When the original Powerwall was released last year, I was sceptical. Mostly, it was just too expensive for the amount of power it provided, especially in the US, where electricity is cheap and most people can sell their excess solar power back to the grid.

Version 2 is a much different product. It packs more than twice the capacity – 14 kilowatt hours versus 6.4 kilowatt hours – for less than half the price after installation. It includes a built-in Tesla-brand inverter and comes with a 10-year, infinite-cycle warranty. 

Electricity storage is crucial for the future uptake of solar power. Already in some solar-heavy ­regions, more electricity is being produced during the middle of the day than people can consume, and utility prices spike when the sun ­­goes down.

In the US, some states are abandoning payments for daytime rooftop solar, undermining huge investments that families have made in their solar systems. The only recourse is for customers to use that electricity themselves, at night.  

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Like previous attempts at solar shingles, the solar-plus-battery package hasn’t really caught on yet. SolarCity’s total bundled sales so far number in just the hundreds. But an argument can be made that the products just weren’t compelling enough and the prices too high.

The Powerwall 2 may be the cheapest lithium ion battery for the home ever made when deliveries start in January. Tesla is ­selling the batteries at retail prices that are cheaper than the average manufacturing cost at most ­companies, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

We “certainly expect it will move the market prices downwards as we saw last year with the first Powerwall”, said Yayoi Sekine, a BNEF analyst who covers battery technology. 

“The future is going to overwhelmingly be solar plus battery,” Musk said. “They go together like peanut butter and jelly.” Powerwall 2 looks ready for prime time. The new solar shingles? Let’s wait until more details emerge.

Tesla says we should expect a slow initial roll-out beginning in about nine months. Within two years of production, the shingles could account for 5 per cent of the five million roofs installed in the US every year, said Peter Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

SolarCity, under the Tesla brand, would also manufacture and sell surface-mounted solar panels for homeowners who have no plans for replacing their existing roofs. The pricing on the new solar roof is a bit ... squishy. Musk said that someone who buys a Tesla roof will save money compared with someone who buys a ­comparable traditional roof plus electricity from the grid. 

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But make no mistake: this will be a premium product, at least when it first rolls out. The terra cotta and slate roofs Tesla mimicked are among the most expensive roof materials on the market.

SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive noted that the price of a conventional roof can vary widely, from US$7,000 to US$70,000 – based on materials, size, complexity, location – so giving out firm prices for a solar roof at this point would be difficult.

“It is the metaphoric ‘super-car’ of residential solar,” said BNEF solar analyst Hugh Bromley. “It portrays cutting-edge technology with broad appeal, but ... it competes in a solar market where most customers are comfortable in a family sedan.”

Strong progress by Chinese solar power generators will see subsidies eliminated by 2025

Telsa will release more financial information about the SolarCity deal before it goes to shareholders for a vote. If all of Musk’s plans come true, by the end of next year you’ll be able to walk into a Tesla shop, buy a Model 3 electric car, a slate-glass solar roof, and a Powerwall 2 to manage the flow of all those electrons in your life. There are a lot of details to be hammered out until we know for certain whether Musk’s vision for a grand unification will become more than just a great television backdrop. But these tiles, viewed up close, are definitely worth tuning in for.­