On Oct. 28, 2016, Tesla founder / SolarCity chairman Elon Musk made a series of solar roofing announcements that shook up the home improvement industry.
SolarCity and Tesla, Musk explained, were going to introduce solar roofing shingles and an in-home battery. Musk claimed the new shingles looked better than a normal roof, generated electricity, lasted longer than current roofing materials and provided better installation.
The best part? The entire package came at a lower installed cost than a normal roof plus the cost of electricity.
Details were a little fuzzy, but the buzz was there. The media was impressed. Major press coverage followed.
So what’s up with solar roofing?
The concept is simple. Solar roofing panels collect sunlight and fill an in-home battery. The battery then provides power for the home (and your electric car).
“It’s pretty straightforward, really,” Musk said. “It’s not that complicated.”
A Tesla / SolarCity roof sounds odd if you only know the company as an automaker. Tesla’s larger mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” The solar roofing project is apparently the next big step forward.
How Tesla and SolarCity’s solar roofing project works
“This is the integrated future,” Musk said during the October rollout. “You’ve got an electric car, a Powerwall and a solar roof. The key is that it needs to be beautiful, affordable and seamlessly integrated. If all those things are true, why would you go any other direction?”
Well, let’s see.
Solar roofing tiles, explained
According to SolarCity.com, a high-efficiency solar cell is embedded in each shingle. This cell creates the actual energy. The cell is protected by tempered glass, which gives the shingle improved durability. A colored louver film rests between the cell and the glass, which makes the shingle look like — well, a shingle — without affecting the work of the cell.
The shingles come in four styles:
- Tuscan: A burnt orange-colored tile that resembles Mediterranean roof tiles.
- Slate: A tile in several shades of gray with differing textures that resembles slate roofing.
- Textured: A grooved tile in two shades of gray that resembles asphalt shingles.
- Smooth: A medium-gray colored smooth tile that resembles traditional metal roofing.
The production process renders each tile unique — like “special snowflakes,” Musk said.
Once installed, the shingles capture energy from the sun for immediate use or storage in the Tesla Powerwall 2 battery. The battery helps your home to maintain its power if you are knocked off the electrical grid by an outage. You can purchase several batteries for more power, if you choose.
The Tesla / SolarCity solar roof is not available for consumers at this time, although the anticipated rollout date is July 2017.
How much would the solar roof cost?
Good question. While Musk has made some vague assertions about the cost-savings of a solar roof, Tesla / SolarCity has not released specific numbers on the cost of its solar roofing system.
Lots of variables apply to specific roof installations, like the size of the home and the pitch of the roof, for example.
Estimating the price of a Tesla / SolarCity system
Here’s what we found:
- Consumer Reports estimates that a Tesla / SolarCity roof “should cost no more than $73,500, installed, to be competitive with an asphalt roof.” Further calculations project the range to be about $70,000 to $100,000, depending on the material selected.That’s significantly more than the cost of an average asphalt shingle roof, or even a more expensive slate roof, which Consumer Reports puts at $45,000.
- Consumer Reports guesses that the power collected by the tiles would generate some $2,000 annually in “free” electricity over the life of an average roof (about 30 years). That $60,000 in energy would offset the initial cost of installation. Basically, you’re paying your energy costs upfront.
- Another financial factor to consider: the Powerwall 2 costs about $5,500 and its warranty lasts for 10 years. Musk claims that his solar shingles may last two or three times as long as a common roofing shingle — if he means 40 years, then simple math tells us that homeowners should plan to replace the battery several times before your next new roof.
- To really make a significant impact in your home energy bills, you probably won’t need one Powerwall — you’ll need four or five. Wait, what? From Jeff Spross in TheWeek.com:
That could be quite an investment if you need to replace those batteries during the life of the roof! You’d better hope the storage technology gets more efficient (and affordable) fast.
The uncertainties of the solar roof
Besides cost — which is a major issue! — there are several unknowns with the Tesla / SolarCity roof system. How exactly the panels would be installed? How will these panels perform over time? Why would the Tesla / SolarCity product succeed in a consumer landscape where other companies like Dow Chemical have failed? And if Tesla / SolarCity get out of the roofing game in, say, 10 years, what happens to everyone with one of their solar roofs?
“(Solar roofing has) been a tough field to enter into with with essentially no success stories,” David Fenning, a University of California-San Diego professor and solar researcher, told CNN.com. “The challenge with solar comes down to cost. You want to be squeezing out every .1 percent in efficiency.”
This may be a big problem for Tesla / SolarCity, according to the CNN report — the colored louver film that makes the solar shingle so attractive “blocks the absorption of light from certain angles, making them less efficient,” Matt McFarland writes. “This could be especially problematic on cloudy or humid days when light rays bounce off cloud cover and other objects, rather than making a beeline from the sun to the shingles.”
Roofing as a luxury purchase?
According to Bloomberg News, the new solar shingles will likely roll out as a luxury product initially, much like the first generation of Tesla’s electric cars. That makes sense, especially if prices look like the projections for Consumer Reports — it may be awhile before the Tesla / SolarCity solar roof becomes affordable to the average homeowner.
Here’s what we know about affordable roofing
For most people, the standard asphalt shingle roof will continue to be the best value.
“Asphalt roofing looks even better when you stack it up against the competition: Metal, tile, slate and wood,” the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association notes. “None of these materials can match the wide array of benefits only asphalt roofing provides. Whether it’s superb colors and beautiful styles you’re looking for, or unparalleled durability and performance, the bottom line is you simply won’t find all these features in a single material… unless it’s asphalt.”
“While other types of roofs are available, we specialize in asphalt shingles because that’s what our customers want,” Yanni Avramidis, director of roofing for Long Roofing, explains. “Customers today are educated. They research before they buy. They recognize the unparalleled value that asphalt shingles offer. The value and variety of many new styles and colors that are available today, combined with the longevity of a 50-year roof, make asphalt shingles the most popular shingle on the market.”
Asphalt shingles are affordable, versatile and look great. Eighty percent of American homes have asphalt shingles on their roofs. An asphalt roof installation takes about a day, and can last for decades.
Will solar shingles take over the world someday?
Hey, maybe. But in the meantime, an asphalt is probably the best bet for anyone who’s planning a roof replacement on a budget.
Let’s talk about a 50-year roofing warranty.
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