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Leon Kaye headshot

Tesla’s Solar Roof Tiles Make Waves for Aesthetics and Affordability

By Leon Kaye

Owning Tesla stock, or just following the company in general, is like dangling at the end of a yo-yo.

Just when you reach a high over another exciting chapter in the company’s clean-energy or automobile developments, you hurtle down yet again as the company’s promises don't quite match up.

But Tesla has reached yet another peak with the announcement that its much anticipated solar roof tiles are ready for market.

Tesla boasts that the tempered glass tiles are three times stronger than conventional roofing materials. Whether homeowners gravitate toward a textured or smooth appearance, Tesla guarantees the tiles for the life of the roof, the home or, in what seems to be a deal too good to be true, the longer lasting of the two. The company suggests the tiles be installed with a Powerwall battery, which Tesla says will allow consumers to use more of the power generated by their roofs and guard against sudden grid outages.

And despite what appears to be a steep price tag, the long-term financial benefits from the company’s point of view are obvious.

Potential customers who are interested need to plunk a $1,000 deposit, and they can glean a quick estimate on Tesla’s website.

Let’s use a 2,500-square-foot home in my hot-as-Hades San Joaquin Valley city as an example. The sticker shock may give me palpitations at first: $70,900 for the roof – of which actually only 40 percent of the tiles would generate solar power, a suggestion made by Tesla. But even after the $7,000 price of a Powerwall, plus federal and local solar tax credits, Tesla claims this home would produce $116,700 worth of energy over 30 years – or an “earning” of $56,200 during that span.

So, is this a wise investment, or just fuzzy Silicon Valley “unicorn” math?

True, that price is more expensive than a conventional roof that generates no energy. But, on average, the latter needs significant repairs or a total replacement every 20 years. And Tesla’s suggested cost is less pricey than the typical solar roof with clunky aluminum frames and battery packs. “The pricing is better than I expected, better than everyone expected,” said Hugh Bromley, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who was interviewed in a story for Bloomberg’s news service yesterday.

Tesla says its estimated cost per square foot, $21.85, beats out a forecast made by Consumer Reports, which last fall said would have to be $24.50 or less to be price competitive with standard residential roofs.

A report on CNBC was less enthusiastic about this latest development, saying 2017 is proving to be a difficult year for many solar installers. Nevertheless, the novelty of these tiles, backed by the power of Tesla’s brand, could be a game changer.

And Tesla has also eschewed the annoying door-to-door and telemarketing sales tactics that to many consumers, have recast used car salesmen as a far more attractive crowd from whom to buy goods and services. Such a shift in strategy also lowers Tesla’s costs of both selling and installing residential solar power systems. The fact is that if someone is visiting Tesla’s solar web pages now, they are probably fairly serious about investing in such a system.

There is caveat to Tesla’s latest news, however: The recent history of solar tiles -- or, in industry terms, BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics) -- is not a pretty one. Dow Chemical, for example, was once bullish on solar tiles, but pulled the plug on that product line last year after sales grew anemic. Ascent Solar and Energy Conversion Devices are among several other companies in the solar tile graveyard.

The news comes a month after Tesla, along with its manufacturing partner Panasonic, generated buzz over its sleek new solar panel systems. But that enthusiasm was tempered when it turned out Tesla revealed little information about this next generation of solar rooftop installations. But yesterday’s news gave Tesla a shot in the arm. As of press time, its stock price was up almost 4 percent.

Image credit: Tesla

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye