SolarCity is talking up the look and longevity of solar roofing but potential costs pose questions about whether it can succeed where others have failed
Elon Musks solar company has its sights set on replacing 5m rooftops in the US with traditional roofing materials integrated with solar cell technology.
SolarCitys plans, announced last month, to develop traditional
roofs made entirely from solar panels are part of a goal to make sustainable homes more aesthetically appealing, convenient, and ultimately affordable to the average homeowner. Its betting that people who need to replace their roofs will be attracted to the companys solar cell option because it wont require additional work or dramatically alter the look of the home.
In an August conference call with investors, company chairman
Elon Musk said people are forced to postpone solar adoption when they know a roof replacement is imminent and that there is a huge market segment that is currently inaccessible to SolarCity. He added that the companys solar cell roofing looks way better and lasts far longer than a normal roof.
Elon Musk, chairman of SolarCity. Photograph: Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters
By integrating a SolarCity roof with Tesla battery packs, it believes those homes could operate on solar power 24-hours a day. The lingering question, however, is whether mainstream homeowners will be able to afford that initial investment.
A SolarCity representative was tightlipped on costs, saying they could not share details about the product at this time.
Some industry players doubt the product can be affordable to most homeowners. Previous versions of photovoltaic roofs also called solar shingles have cost
up to a third than traditional solar panels, were less efficient, and were far more pricey to install.
What [the company is] talking about is a paradigm shift, not just a small leap, says Scott Franklin, owner of Lumos Solar, which specialises in solar panel architecture and design. SolarCity is known for being a low-cost, fast installer. Now theyre talking about developing an entirely new product and becoming roofers? In terms of cost, theyre going from selling solar leases to telling somebody they have to replace an entire roof. Thats a dramatic cost difference.
In 2009, US multinational Dow Chemical began developing solar shingles. Yet at a price of more than $20,000 per roof, the technology
was not commercially viable and Dow discontinued the product in June 2016.
Thatll be the battle the cost factor, says Bill Ellard, an economist for the American Solar
Energy Society. But if SolarCity works with some of the major homebuilders and they can invent their own systems, I think theres a play there.
But even if it succeeds in creating an affordable product, can SolarCity match the success of other eco-home innovations?
Smart home devices such as Googles Nest thermostat are more affordable, and going down in cost each year. Thermostats and energy monitoring systems have taken off in recent years in part because they allow homeowners to cut energy use without changing their behaviour.
Googles Nest thermostat. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images
Homeowners dont want to think about efficiency; they want it just taken care of, says John Quale, a sustainable home design professor at the University of New Mexico. We are not great about closing curtains or opening windows when we should. Thats why technologies that do things for us are so appealing.
Brian Abramson, cofounder of sustainable homebuilder Method Homes in Seattle, Washington, says smart home technology is becoming more mainstream, lower cost, and accessible. We probably do Nest thermostats and basic lighting control on 80% of our houses; a couple of years ago there werent any smart thermostats, and lighting control was only in 20% of our homes.
Success in the residential solar market, by contrast, is heavily dependent on friendly government policies, a model that has proved challenging when tax incentives threaten to expire, or when monopoly utility companies are allowed to
change the way they reimburse solar panel owners for energy put into the grid.
By entering the home roofing market, SolarCity is also tacitly acknowledging that aesthetic concerns also hinder solar panel adoption.
Aesthetics are a big deal, says Franklin. The first wave of solar adoption was driven by economics or environmental concerns. Now people are already past the I think its a good idea phase. They want to do it, but it has to look good and add to the value of a home rather than just be a bolted on addition.
The companys announcement that it will unveil its solar cell roof in the coming months followed news that Tesla
will acquire SolarCity as part of a master plan to integrate the solar panel company with Telsa battery products. That marriage between power production and storage could be the difference between failures of the past and what Musk hopes to achieve, Quale says.
If you look at the aspirations of Tesla and SolarCity, they have huge potential. Elon Musk is really talking about getting to the masses, and those companies could very well be an important driver in reducing costs, he says.
The conventional glass panel arrays have come down substantially in cost in the last five years and theres no reason to think these roofing materials couldnt fall into that as well.