The Tesla Solar Roof – Big Innovation or Overpriced Gadget?

Posted: April 5, 2019 Author: zach

It’s finally here.  The big event that is supposedly going to change the face of solar power for decades.  As of May 11, you can order a Tesla solar roof.  And, even more importantly, you can hook your photovoltaic power up to your very own Tesla power wall.  The cord has officially been cut.

In case you missed it, Tesla has been promising a radical new approach to residential solar ever since they merged with alternative energy giant SolarCity last November.  Their solar roofs, Tesla promised, would be more durable than traditional panels and be aesthetically similar to traditional roofing.  All while providing similar if not greater power than the current products available.

No small task.  The design of solar panels has remained unchanged for decades.  But Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, is in the business of breaking the mold.

Solar Roofs Are Durable and Nice to Look At

At first glance, it appears that Tesla delivered on its promise.  The new solar roofs are virtually indistinguishable from accepted construction materials.  Made of tempered glass, they are designed to represent a variety of shingle styles including textured or smooth tiles and slate.  A Tuscan version is scheduled to roll out in 2018.

To ease any anxiety about durability, the solar roof boasts a lifetime warranty.  On their website, Tesla claims the system will last as long as your house, or infinity, whichever comes first.  That’s a pretty good guarantee.  According to the manufacturer the product has been tested against the worst mother nature has to offer including hail and high winds and has passed with flying colors.

No Great Gains in Performance

So, the new roofs deliver on durability and looks.  But what about the areas that most alternative energy enthusiasts normally consider? Things like performance.  And cost.  Those are the real questions and unfortunately Tesla has some ground to cover if their solar solution is going to become the new photovoltaic standard.

Experts have been busy determining the efficiency of the new solar roof and comparing it against panels in use today.  The new roofs are using Panasonic technology with an efficiency rating around 19%.  Tesla admits some losses occur due to the colored film applied to create their tile look but have not said how much.  So far it would appear the efficiency loss is no more than a few percentage points making the solar roof an average performer at best.

Expect to Pay a Premium and Don’t Expect the ITC

Cost is another area in which Tesla has some ground to make up.  On the Tesla site, a calculator is provided to allow someone to estimate the cost of a new roof for their home.  Using this tool, it was shown that solar roofs come in around $25,000-$35,000 more than traditional panels for a comparable system.  That is a lot of money for most homeowners and could slow orders considerably.

It has yet to be determined if solar roofs will be eligible for the Federal Investment Tax Credit most solar owners enjoy.  This could be a major stumbling block as most new installs rely on the 30% refund to make panels affordable.  The IRS will have to determine if the roof qualifies soon, as the benefit is set to expire in 2020.

The Power Wall Could Be the Only Real Innovation

The real advances may come with the power wall, now being offered as a $7,000 add-on.  Tesla’s real expertise is in batteries and many believe the cars and roofs are just a way to sell more energy storage units.  Whatever the motivation, if Tesla has actually developed a superior storage solution to the current model of deep cycle batteries this would be a huge win for those looking to make residential solar work without net gain relationships.

Overall, the Tesla roof does what it promises.  It provides a durable solar solution and it looks great.  But, it is not the revolutionary product described months ago.  Tempered glass has long been used for traditional panels and no real breakthroughs in alternative energy technology are present.  It’s not even the first Building Integrated Photovoltaic System, or BIPS, to be manufactured.  However, it is the first to be marketed by a popular personality like Elon Musk.

In the coming years, Tesla will most likely have to reduce production costs for the solar roof to be economically viable for most alternative energy consumers.  If this happens, the solar roof could create a real stir in the industry by virtue of making solar more homeowner association friendly and drawing customers who were otherwise turned off by the poor aesthetics of traditional panels.  This potential makes the Tesla solar roof something to watch with interest, but it hardly fits the bill as the new face of residential solar.