Tesla’s New Solar Roof Is Pretty, But Is It Practical?

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Last week, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors spoke before a crowd at the set of the TV show Desperate Housewives. “The interesting thing is that the houses you see around you are all solar houses,” said Musk. “Did you notice?” This news shocked the audience, as there wasn’t a solar panel in sight. Instead, the surrounding solar cells were camouflaged in glass roof tiles with styles like Tuscan and slate.

This is part of Musk’s vision to revolutionize clean energy generation. He unveiled plans by Tesla to produce solar roof tiles in a variety of colors and textures. His goal is to make solar roofs that look better than the typical roof, have an installed cost that is lower than a new roof plus the cost of electricity, last longer, and provide better insulation.

If he can pull this off, rooftops as we know them will not be the same. Could this be the leap necessary to make solar more appealing and widespread?

Although Musk shows that going solar can be more aesthetically pleasing, pricing information on the solar tiles has not yet been released. The cost of solar energy, however, has plummeted in recent years and is already cost competitive with fossil fuel-based grid power in 10 U.S. states. Musk’s goal seems both realistic and viable if Tesla can work out the details.

You'd be hard-pressed to guess these slate glass tiles are actually solar tiles. Photo credit: Tesla

You’d be hard-pressed to guess these slate glass tiles are actually solar tiles. Photo credit: Tesla

The Problem with Asphalt Shingles

Certainly, this common roofing system could use an overhaul. Asphalt roofs are not impressive from an environmental standpoint. They have low recycling rates (due to the potentially hazardous materials they contain), a mere 20-year lifespan and they absorb too much heat. By using a petroleum-based product, asphalt shingles increase our reliance on fossil fuels. When solar panels are mounted on asphalt roofs, the panels typically outlive the roof. This means that roofers have to work around the solar system or else temporarily remove the array.

In addition, an aluminum racking system is used to mount the solar panels. Although this is a relatively modest cost when considering the total system cost, solar tiles do not require such hardware because the tile and the solar cells are integrated. Combining solar cells with roofing materials could reduce total installation costs when compared to installing both a new roof and solar panels.

Why Is a Car Company Making Solar Roof Tiles?

From a lifestyle perspective, a solar roof and a car powered by solar energy go well together. Photo credit: Tesla

From a lifestyle perspective, a solar roof and a car powered by solar energy go well together. Photo credit: Tesla

Tesla is dedicated to the world’s transition to clean energy. This vision includes renewable electricity generation, energy storage and clean transportation. Musk is the chairman and the largest investor in both Tesla and SolarCity, which makes solar power systems for homes and businesses. There is a $2.6 billion merger with SolarCity on the table, which will come to a shareholder vote on Nov. 17. Musk says SolarCity has 300,000 solar customers and Tesla has 180,000 car owners, and he sees great cross-selling opportunities. Introducing a sleek new solar product is likely to appeal to electric vehicle owners, who can use solar power to recharge.

Given that Tesla has proven itself with disruptive technology in recent years, revolutionizing both rooftops and clean power generation seems well within their means.

Related: We Could Power America with Relatively Few Solar Panels, So Why Aren’t We?

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Sarah Lozanova
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Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is a renewable energy and sustainability journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Earth911, Home Power, Triple Pundit, CleanTechnica, The Ecologist, GreenBiz, Renewable Energy World and Windpower Engineering. Lozanova also works with several corporate clients as a public relations writer to gain visibility for renewable energy and sustainability achievements.
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