Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced plans to reboot his company’s lagging solar division by offering rooftop panels for rent in six U.S. states, just days before Walmart filed a lawsuit over seven fires it linked to Tesla rooftop installations between 2012 and 2018.
Musk’s unveiled his “relaunch” on Twitter August 18, with “plans to offer panels for rent in Southwest states that get a lot of sun throughout the year, like California, Arizona and New Mexico, and East Coast states with clean energy goals, like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey,” Utility Dive reports.
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“With the new lower Tesla pricing, it’s like having a money printer on your roof if you live [in] a state with high electricity costs,” he tweeted. “Still better to buy, but the rental option makes the economics obvious.”
Utility Dive traces the announcement back to Tesla’s US$2.6-billion deal to buy SolarCity, then the country’s leading solar installer, in 2016. At the time, Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive owned the company, and Musk chaired its board of directors.
But the solar division has gone downhill ever since. “The company installed 6.3% of the U.S. residential solar capacity in the first quarter of 2019—falling into third place, behind Sunrun’s 11% market share and Vivint Solar’s 7.6% share,” the industry news site states, citing analysts at Wood Mackenzie.
Tesla is certainly trying to keep things streamlined for prospective renters. “A simple online form allows a customer to choose from three sizes of systems: 3.8 kW, 7.6 kW, and 11.4 kW,” Utility Dive notes. “The company charges no installation fee and does not require a long-term contract, but requires a $100 fee for signing up. Tesla says removing the panels will cost $1,500.”
Tesla didn’t comment on whether renters would have access to the high-end solar roof product it announced with much fanfare in 2016, but has yet to roll out at scale.
Walmart, meanwhile, filed suit in New York Supreme Court August 20, alleging “systemic, widespread failures” in solar system installation and maintenance that breached 244 solar and storage contracts the retail giant signed with Tesla. The court action “detailed numerous fires across the country that Walmart alleges were connected to Tesla solar panels,” Greentech Media reports. “After Tesla agreed to de-energize all of Walmart’s systems in the early summer of 2018, another fire erupted that fall.”
“To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust,” Walmart said in its court submission.
Walmart blamed SolarCity for “chaotic installation practices” that Tesla then failed to correct, adding that the pace of installations—40% of the systems in a single year—was too fast to allow “adequate quality control checks or supervision protocols”. After Tesla acquired SolarCity, the suit alleges, the company “engaged in widespread, systemic negligence and had failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating, and maintaining its solar systems—conduct that greatly increased the risk of fire at Walmart sites.”
The next question is how a high-profile lawsuit will affect corporate renewable energy buys that are expected to set an all-time U.S. record this year. “While solar-related fires, especially of this magnitude, are uncommon, the high-profile lawsuit may cast a shadow on an industry defined by its hunger for growth,” Greentech writes. “Tesla, in particular, has faced recent skepticism about its solar business,” and “the controversy also has the potential to damper Walmart’s goal to reach 100% renewable energy, which it announced in 2016.” But Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables senior solar analyst Colin Smith said the Walmart case will more likely allay corporate jitters about renewables by showing that there’s a “level of protection built into the system, which they otherwise might see as an unknown risk.”