Elon Musk is Trying to Perfect Solar Roof Tiles
Elon Musk will take the stage Friday evening at Universal Studios in Los Angeles to unveil a “solar roof,” and to boost his case for Tesla Motors Inc.’s planned acquisition of SolarCity Corp.
Like many of his innovative concepts -- from electric cars to reusable rockets -- this path is littered with failures. Musk’s long-term vision of a clean-energy society with smart solar homes has proven appealing to investors and his many fans. But figuring out the actual nuts and bolts of making a new rooftop power system economically viable will be a challenge.
Designers have been reaching for an elegant and simple solar-powered roofing material for more than a decade, and none have been practical because of higher costs and lower power output than traditional photovoltaic panels, said Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Zurich.
“It’s an architectural gimmick,” Chase said in an interview Thursday. “I’ve have seen colorful roof tiles and ‘building-integrated PV’ for sale at exhibitions for years, from Shanghai to San Francisco. For it to work, it has to knock-off system costs.”
Musk, who takes pride in aesthetics, is taking on the design of the solar panel itself -- a product widely seen as a commodity without little differentiation. Tesla is expected to unveil what may best be described as a solar shingle.
“I think there’s quite a radical difference between having solar panels on your roof that actually make your house look better versus ones that do not,” Musk said in a June call with investors after the proposal to acquire SolarCity was first announced.
The concept isn’t new. Dow Chemical Co. in June abandoned a five-year effort to build a market for its Powerhouse solar shingles. And Energy Conversion Devices Inc., whose Uni-Solar unitproduced flexible sheets of solar for rooftops, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Those companies both used different photovoltaic technologies than the more common polysilicon product that SolarCity is developing with its Silevo technology. And Musk was promising more than just a solar shingle when in August he described their product as “not a thing on a roof, it is the roof.”
Tesla is teaming up with Panasonic Corp., a tech powerhouse and his main battery supplier, as SolarCity ramps up production at a solar factory in Buffalo, New York, next year.
“In order to have a beautiful solar roof product, we’ve got to be able to iterate rapidly and have them made exactly the way we want them so that they have very high efficiency cells at the lowest cost,” Musk said during Wednesday’s third-quarter earnings call.