If you’ve found it difficult to stay up to date on the future of Tesla Motors and SolarCity in recent weeks, you are not alone. Numerous industries (solar, electric vehicles, and ridesharing, to name a few) worldwide are starting to feel the impact of a merger that could significantly alter growth plans for manufacturers and executives across the globe. Now the concept of an integrated solar glass shingle – the Tesla solar tile – is on everyone’s mind.
We had already heard about Tesla’s plans for total clean energy integration – a one step carbon reduction process that involves pairing solar panels with your Tesla electric vehicle. Now for the latest: thanks to a surprise appearance of Chairman Elon Musk in SolarCity’s 2nd quarter earnings call that lead to a highly anticipated Tesla solar roofing product launch at the end of October, we’ve now seen the future of PV roofing and the future of Tesla. One thing is certain: building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are going to be a part of Tesla Motors – or should we say Tesla Energy’s – future.
Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) vs. Building-Applied Photovoltaics (BAPV): what are they?
Even before the latest Musk upheaval, building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) technology has been garnering attention as part of solar’s gradual expansion into broader markets like sustainable roofing design and green building.
Simply put, BIPV replaces materials of the building envelope with photovoltaics. This is in contrast with traditional rooftop solar installations, which entails attaching a PV module to a building separately. The goal of BIPV is to integrate installation as part of a construction project, rather than a separate post-construction addition. In theory, this would result in significant savings by reducing labor and installation costs and eliminating the need for separate racking equipment. With BIPV, solar becomes an efficient building material rather than a luxury add-on.
Often confused with BIPV is building-applied photovoltaics, or BAPV, which refers to solar that is retroactively integrated into a building. While BAPV is much more common than BIPV in today’s day and age, BIPV is truly the ideal scenario for cost efficiency – hence why Elon Musk named it Tesla’s next move.
The Tesla/SolarCity solar panel roof: what you need to know
Many stakeholders had agreed that solar installation needed to be rebranded as an aesthetic and technical improvement that could be a part of a home renovation rather than a hefty module that is nailed onto your rooftop. That sentiment was punctuated in Elon Musk’s late October launch of Tesla’s new roofing product which will aim to bring solar further into the mainstream by removing any sort of visual setbacks homeowners may fear. “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, I think it’s going to be a night-and-day difference,” said Musk in a statement before the product’s official launch. Two months later he unveiled the tangible roofing product, using a crowded, suburban event in California to demonstrate that his panel design is so seamlessly integrated that an entire audience of press needed to be told the house they were looking at even had solar installed.
Tesla solar glass tile and roofing product materials
Much of what we had expected for the roof product is what we got on October 28 – the only surprise was the appearance and the use of a supposedly unbreakable glass apparatus. With the SolarCity’s acquisition expected post November 17’s big merger decision, Tesla is starting to leverage the new resources available to them. Other than SolarCity’s massive installer workforce – which will be doing more building and less installing in the future – the asset most important to Musk’s solar glass roof will be Panasonic’s impressive panel efficiency and the durability of the tiles and shingles being made. Musk demonstrated in the launch the strength of his new roofing product, testing heavy weights on three common roofing shingles as well as his own. Sure enough, the Tesla roof was the only one that could withstand the weight and pressure. “It’s made of quartz” explained Musk. “It has a quasi-infinite lifetime.”
This shingle and roof durability will be a huge selling point for homeowners who are looking for more value added than just the benefits of a clean energy roof type. In a sense, Tesla wants to make inroads into both the solar industry and roofing industry and offer competitive advantages in both. Solar panel warranties are often a huge selling point for homeowners who are concerned about the longtime production value and durability of their solar panel systems. Musk seems on a mission to put those concerns to bed and reach a broader audience than solar power ever could before.
The new roof will be offered in four model designs: Tuscan glass tile, slate glass tile, textured glass tile and smooth glass tile. This versatility and choice for homeowners will certainly change the consumer experience of “going solar.” Musk’s BIPV innovation can be described with two improvements that both are focused around choice:
- Going solar no longer requires any perceived drawback in the appearance of large panels on your roof – homeowners can make solar as a roof styling improvement if they so choose.
- Solar can now be fully integrated and customized to match the texture and appearance of your roof – it can now be thought of as an integration rather than an addition where a homeowner chooses what fits their aesthetic preference.
Solar roofs vs. solar panel shingles vs. solar glass
Though it might keep Musk up at night, Tesla will not be the first company to launch a solar roof product. Development of solar roof tiles and solar shingles (most famously by Dow) has been evolving for many years, and a number of companies have taken a stab at designing a versatile, subtle rooftop solar medium that could be considered a genuine roofing material rather than a module add-on.
According to New York Installer Suntegra, three out of four homeowners would prefer an integrated solar system. The common types of BIPV to date are the following:
- Semi-transparent solar glazing that can replace windows and skylights
- Solar cell membranes that can be integrated into a roofing design (what Tesla has mirrored with solar roof glass)
- Solar panel shingles: also referred to as solar tiles, solar roof shingles are a versatile photovoltaic product made with flexible thin film cells, placed above a roof’s dew point. Solar shingles were offered by Dow before the company went bankrupt in 2015.
- Solar facades for sun-facing sides of buildings (typically only used for BAPV)
For Musk, the real innovation is the production of a solar system that truly is considered a roof model. While the four forms of BIPV (listed above) have been around for some time, the concept of a completely solar roof has not yet been successfully brought to market. What’s standing in Musk’s way? The real solar efficiency of these Tesla glass shingles and the price are two major factors that were only ambiguously addressed by Musk in the launch.
Cost is a enormous grey area for this new product – Tesla hasn’t made any pricing information available to date. With a company like Tesla, it will be hard to even venture a guess for what these glorious glass roofs will cost. After all, they’re a premium product made of quartz and are virtually unbreakable – it’s possible that Tesla’s solar roof will be a solar option for the top 1-5% and not the majority of prospective homeowners.
Another deciding factor for the roof product’s success is efficiency. Musk briefly touched on this in the product release when he mentioned that the glass material shielding the solar cell results in a very minimal efficiency drop for the photovoltaic shingle. But in an industry where a new record for PV efficiency is announced almost every month and the cost of solar is directly tied to how well a solar panel produces electricity, the real numbers on what this glass shingle can achieve will be crucial. Musk’s enthusiasm is contagious and he certainly has a history of audacious ventures grounded in revenue, but his entrepreneurial vision has its limits. The Tesla/SolarCity solar roof could succeed, but it will unequivocally shoulder great adversity.
New BIPV, More Innovation, Same Musk
At the end of the day, solar roofs are not going to be a seamless product integration for Tesla. And yet, the concept certainly has the feel of the Tesla brand. Many had been questioning how Musk could possibly give solar panels the exquisite Tesla feel when they usually stick out, often contrasting with a roof’s design. The solar roof and the sleek glass roof tiles appear to be just the answer Musk was seeking for Tesla’s entrance into the solar industry.
Tesla and its esteemed chairman have a long way to go to affirm their status as a real player in both the solar PV and green roofing industries. How they will make this roof concept cost-competitive and how they will effectively absorb the financial turmoil of SolarCity are two big hurdles for the clean energy behemoth. But for now, Musk has done his job. The world’s interest is piqued and millions of homeowners are already anxiously anticipating Tesla Energy’s new solar product coming to market in 2017. For those solar shoppers who are wondering what a rooftop solar installation would cost them today, check out our Solar Calculator to get a free personalized estimate.