North Atlantic right whales could become extinct, US officials say

Noaa scientist says you do have to use the extinction word while study suggests whales leave protected areas to feed

US federal officials say it is time to consider the possibility that North Atlantic right whales could become extinct, unless new steps are taken to protect them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has said there are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left and 17 have died in 2017.

The situation is so dire that US and Canadian regulators need to consider the possibility that the population will not recover without action soon, said John Bullard, north-east regional administrator for Noaa Fisheries.

The high year of mortality is coinciding with a year of poor reproduction. There are only about 100 breeding female North Atlantic right whales left.

You do have to use the extinction word because thats where the trend lines say they are, Bullard said. Thats something we cant let happen.

Bullard and other Noaa officials made the comments during a meeting this week of the regulatory New England Fishery Management Council. Mark Murray-Brown, an Endangered Species Act consultant for Noaa, said right whales have been declining in abundance since 2010, with females hit harder than males.

The US and Canada must work to reduce the human-caused deaths of the whales, Murray-Brown said. Vessel-strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are two frequently cited causes of the whales deaths.

The current status of the right whales is a critical situation and using our available resources to recover right whales is of high importance and high urgency, he said.

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A North Atlantic right whale dives, near a New England Aquarium research boat. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The animals give birth in temperate southern waters and then head to New England and Canada every spring and summer to feed. All of this years deaths were off New England and Canada.

Some recent scientific studies have shed some light on why whale deaths have increased. One, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, stated that the whales move around much more than previously thought. Some scientists have posited that whales might be venturing outside of protected areas in search of food, putting themselves in harms way.

In another study, published last month in the journal Endangered Species Research, scientists examined right whale feces and found whales that suffer long entanglements in fishing gear produce hormone levels that indicate high stress. The stress negatively impacts their ability to reproduce even when they survive entanglement, scientists said.

My colleagues are trying to find solutions so we can find out how they can continue to fish but not entangle whales, said a study co-author, Elizabeth Burgess, an associate scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

A five-year Noaa review of right whales released in October said the animals should remain on the endangered list. It also included recommendations to protect the species including developing a long-term plan for monitoring the population trends and habitat use and studying the impact of commercial fishing on right whales.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/10/north-atlantic-right-whales-extinct

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Activists lose criminal case on climate change defense but judge praises effort

The Delta 5 argued that illegally blocking a train was necessary to prevent greater harm, the furthest environmentalists have gone in US using necessity defense

Five environmental activists who failed to convince a court that their attempt to block crude oil trains near Seattle was a legally justifiable act of civil disobedience on Friday were nonetheless praised by a judge as part of the solution to climate change.

On Friday, the campaigners were convicted in a court in suburban Seattle of misdemeanor trespassing relating to a September 2014 protest in which they blocked railway tracks used by crude oil trains in Everett, Washington.

They were acquitted of a second count of misdemeanor obstructing a train.

The so-called Delta 5 Michael LaPointe, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Elizabeth Spoerri and Abigail Brockway had hoped that their trial would mark the first time that a US jury was allowed to consider the necessity defense in a case of climate activism.

The defendants intended to argue that their acts, though illegal, were necessary to prevent the greater harm of catastrophic climate change.

But after allowing two days of expert testimony on topics ranging from the Paris climate talks to railway safety standards and the health impacts of particulate matter, Judge Anthony E Howard ruled that the defense had failed to present sufficient evidence to show that the defendants had no reasonable legal alternative to trespassing on a private rail yard and blocking trains.

The case is a blow to environmental campaigners but marks the furthest defendants have managed to go in an American courtroom using the so-called necessity defense that argues such actions are justified to combat catastrophic climate change.

The activists progressed unusually far because Howard allowed them to call expert witnesses to testify to the harms of climate change, even though he later felt compelled to instruct the jury to disregard their evidence. The judge appeared to do so reluctantly, expressing some sympathy for the activists in a court on Thursday.

Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change, Howard said from the bench. But, he added: I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal beliefs might be.

That precedent, including a per se ban on necessity defenses in cases of indirect civil disobedience by the ninth circuit court of appeals, is overwhelmingly against the idea that such an argument should be available to defendants. After his ruling, the judge directed the jury to disregard the expert testimony on climate change, public health, and the dangers of transporting crude oil by train.

In an act of judicial consolation, Howard added that he hoped the defendants, whom he described as tireless advocates of the kind that we need more of in this society, would find some value in having been able to present their beliefs in a public forum. He also allowed an extra 10 minutes for lunch on Thursday, in recognition of the fact that he had just crushed your hopes and dreams.

Though the necessity defense dominated the proceedings in the courtroom, it is something of a legal oddity that MJ McCallum, Bridge Joyce and Evelyn Chuang three of the four lawyers on the defense team recalled learning about in law school through a case of sailors lost at sea who resorted to cannibalism when one of their fellow castaways died of natural causes. (The defendants in Regina v Dudley and Stephens were found guilty when they admitted that they actually murdered the child they ate, but trust a defense team to put a different spin on it.)

Robert Goldsmith was the sole attorney on the defense team to have argued for necessity, which he did successfully, once, in the 1979 case of 20 protesters who blocked the entrance to the Zion nuclear power plant in Waukegan, Illinois.

Despite the odds, however, the necessity defense remains the holy grail for some climate activists.

Were going to keep working with folks to keep pushing these defenses, said Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who served 21 months behind bars for a civil disobedience action after a judge refused his attempt to employ the necessity defense.

DeChristophers organization, Climate Disobedience Center, is supporting the efforts of another group that was arrested attempting to block a fracked natural gas pipeline in Westchester County, New York. According to DeChristopher, the protesters will try the necessity defense during a bench trial today, 15 January, in New York.

The defense has been used successfully in the UK, where a jury acquitted six Greenpeace protesters in 2008 after they argued their occupation and damage to a Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent was justified by the threat of climate change.

Beyond the necessity defense, some climate activists are looking at other strategies in the US to challenge the limitations of statutory law and push for urgent governmental action to limit climate change.

Our legal principles have to account for the clear, imminent danger perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry, said Mary Wood, a professor of environmental law at the University of Oregon.

Wood is an advocate for applying public trust doctrine to climate change, arguing that a government has a fundamental responsibility to preserve crucial resources like the land, water, and air that predates statutory law.

Michael Foster, who attended the Delta Five trial each day, works with Seattle youth who adopted Woods theory and sued the Washington state government for failing to adequately protect the environment for their generation.

The system is broken enough that we have to pursue every other avenue, Foster said.

In December, a judge issued a ruling in the case, which Foster described as kickass poetry about the constitutional rights of these kids to air, land, and water.

Though the loss of the necessity defense in this case was a disappointment, DeChristopher remains hopeful that the law will be pushed to take a different view of climate change civil disobedience.

We understand that precedent is not in our favor, he said, but we also understand that peoples consciences are hard to oppress.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/15/delta-5-seattle-washington-climate-change-court-defense

Elon Musk aims to refit 5m homes with solar roofs

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
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
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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/sep/03/elon-musk-solar-roofs-sustainable-homes-solarcity-panels

Seattle homeowners accused of felling 150 trees on public land for a better view

The destruction of an acre and a half of trees along a public greenbelt has drawn condemnation and sparked civil lawsuits

Settling into homes with gold-plated views is the goal for many who come to West Seattle. And so headlines blared when residents learned that some neighbors, seeking a better view than they already had, had hacked down more nearly an acre and a half of trees along a public greenbelt.

The unpermitted choppings on the city-owned West Duwamish Greenbelt which is prone to landslides and relies on trees to stabilize the soil destroyed more than 150 big-leaf maple trees and Scouler willows. As fall begins, a riot of rotting log carcasses and gnarly moss-draped limbs are still strewn about the site. There are deep pockmarks, too, and gashes left by the wholesale clear-cut.

The discovery in March by a team of city investigators sparked outrage. One anonymous commenter, reported The Stranger, suggested the city chop the [culprit] to pieces and see how it feels.

Now, Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes has filed civil suits against several couples who police say were involved in the tree-cutting caper, seeking an unprecedented $1.6m in damages and fines.

The two suits filed in King County superior court on 20 September, the culmination of a seven-month long (and still ongoing) police investigation, lists six defendants by name, and also includes 26 Jane and John Does as witnesses.

The first suit alleges that Kostas and Linda Kyrimis cut down 72 trees to improve their views, while the second alleges that Stanley and Mary Harrelson and Marty and Karrie Reimer hired freelance tree-cutters to fell 55 maples. The city believer other homeowners are responsible for cutting down the rest of the trees.

Holmes told the Guardian last week: It looked like a tornado hit it. It was like they just said, Lets just whack it all down.

He is almost certain the damage occurred in January, but that it didnt come to the citys attention until a nervous neighbor contacted the parks department. He later identified that person as Stanley Harrelson, saying: I think he wanted to clear his conscience or limit his liability or both. No one has come forward yet with the full story of what happened and why.


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A photograph of the damage. Photograph: City of Seattle

All of the defendants, four of whom have admitted to cutting the trees without permits, have lawyered up. Neither the Kyrimis family, nor the Harrelson family, could be reached for comment.

The Harrelsons attorney, Clayton Shaw, did not return phone calls. In a statement issued to the Seattle Times after the suits were filed, he said: The Harrelsons have acknowledged their role in this mistake, but the City has been unresponsive to our attempts to reach a settlement. Shaw claims his client hired contractors to prune the trees, not cut down them entirely.

Countered Holmes: They just want to mitigate the amount [of the fine] down, and we are not going to do that. I still have not decided yet as to whether I will file criminal charges, and from a financial standpoint, they would be in the realm of felony charges.

I have asked that the city consider criminal charges, said Lisa Herbold, a city councilwoman who represents West Seattle. At the very least, I hope we dont negotiate it down, that we stick with the $1.6m.

A woman who moved nearly a year ago next door to the Harrelsons, and who asked to not be identified, stood in her driveway on a recent afternoon. I left for a vacation in mid-January for a week, she said, and when I got back the trees were gone. I moved here because of the greenbelt, and now look at it.

Gazing down the quiet tree-lined street, the disgruntled neighbor cracked, Im happy to report Im not involved, but you are not going to get anyone to talk. Everyones lips are sealed.

Defendant Marty Reimer, a 30-year-long resident of West Seattle and a popular morning-show radio host in the city, is among those tight-lipped property owners. But he took time last week to come down the front steps of his $800,000 rambler-style home and talk briefly.

We have gotten sucked up into this whirlpool, and I wish I could say more, he said. But weve been told by our attorney not to say anything.

It has been a shock to us that this happened. There is so much Id like to say, but I cant. Everyone around here is scared.

Illegal tree removals is nothing new to Seattle, but usually it involves only a handful of trees. One has to go all the way to 2002 to find a case of this magnitude, when Jerome Ferris, a federal judge was slapped with a $500,000 fine after his gardener cut down more than 120 cherry and maples trees in the a Mount Baker neighborhood park near Lake Washington.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/04/seattle-homeowners-cut-down-trees-better-view-lawsuit

Elon Musk aims to refit 5m homes with solar roofs

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
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
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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/sep/03/elon-musk-solar-roofs-sustainable-homes-solarcity-panels

Seattle homeowners accused of felling 150 trees on public land for a better view

The destruction of an acre and a half of trees along a public greenbelt has drawn condemnation and sparked civil lawsuits

Settling into homes with gold-plated views is the goal for many who come to West Seattle. And so headlines blared when residents learned that some neighbors, seeking a better view than they already had, had hacked down more nearly an acre and a half of trees along a public greenbelt.

The unpermitted choppings on the city-owned West Duwamish Greenbelt which is prone to landslides and relies on trees to stabilize the soil destroyed more than 150 big-leaf maple trees and Scouler willows. As fall begins, a riot of rotting log carcasses and gnarly moss-draped limbs are still strewn about the site. There are deep pockmarks, too, and gashes left by the wholesale clear-cut.

The discovery in March by a team of city investigators sparked outrage. One anonymous commenter, reported The Stranger, suggested the city chop the [culprit] to pieces and see how it feels.

Now, Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes has filed civil suits against several couples who police say were involved in the tree-cutting caper, seeking an unprecedented $1.6m in damages and fines.

The two suits filed in King County superior court on 20 September, the culmination of a seven-month long (and still ongoing) police investigation, lists six defendants by name, and also includes 26 Jane and John Does as witnesses.

The first suit alleges that Kostas and Linda Kyrimis cut down 72 trees to improve their views, while the second alleges that Stanley and Mary Harrelson and Marty and Karrie Reimer hired freelance tree-cutters to fell 55 maples. The city believer other homeowners are responsible for cutting down the rest of the trees.

Holmes told the Guardian last week: It looked like a tornado hit it. It was like they just said, Lets just whack it all down.

He is almost certain the damage occurred in January, but that it didnt come to the citys attention until a nervous neighbor contacted the parks department. He later identified that person as Stanley Harrelson, saying: I think he wanted to clear his conscience or limit his liability or both. No one has come forward yet with the full story of what happened and why.


A
A photograph of the damage. Photograph: City of Seattle

All of the defendants, four of whom have admitted to cutting the trees without permits, have lawyered up. Neither the Kyrimis family, nor the Harrelson family, could be reached for comment.

The Harrelsons attorney, Clayton Shaw, did not return phone calls. In a statement issued to the Seattle Times after the suits were filed, he said: The Harrelsons have acknowledged their role in this mistake, but the City has been unresponsive to our attempts to reach a settlement. Shaw claims his client hired contractors to prune the trees, not cut down them entirely.

Countered Holmes: They just want to mitigate the amount [of the fine] down, and we are not going to do that. I still have not decided yet as to whether I will file criminal charges, and from a financial standpoint, they would be in the realm of felony charges.

I have asked that the city consider criminal charges, said Lisa Herbold, a city councilwoman who represents West Seattle. At the very least, I hope we dont negotiate it down, that we stick with the $1.6m.

A woman who moved nearly a year ago next door to the Harrelsons, and who asked to not be identified, stood in her driveway on a recent afternoon. I left for a vacation in mid-January for a week, she said, and when I got back the trees were gone. I moved here because of the greenbelt, and now look at it.

Gazing down the quiet tree-lined street, the disgruntled neighbor cracked, Im happy to report Im not involved, but you are not going to get anyone to talk. Everyones lips are sealed.

Defendant Marty Reimer, a 30-year-long resident of West Seattle and a popular morning-show radio host in the city, is among those tight-lipped property owners. But he took time last week to come down the front steps of his $800,000 rambler-style home and talk briefly.

We have gotten sucked up into this whirlpool, and I wish I could say more, he said. But weve been told by our attorney not to say anything.

It has been a shock to us that this happened. There is so much Id like to say, but I cant. Everyone around here is scared.

Illegal tree removals is nothing new to Seattle, but usually it involves only a handful of trees. One has to go all the way to 2002 to find a case of this magnitude, when Jerome Ferris, a federal judge was slapped with a $500,000 fine after his gardener cut down more than 120 cherry and maples trees in the a Mount Baker neighborhood park near Lake Washington.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/04/seattle-homeowners-cut-down-trees-better-view-lawsuit

Elon Musk aims to refit 5m homes with solar roofs

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
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
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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/sep/03/elon-musk-solar-roofs-sustainable-homes-solarcity-panels