Tesla Inc. has been making waves over the last week with the latest in a series of announcements for its long-promised, long-awaited solar roof. But one industry publication is declaring itself unconvinced.
Late last week, Greentech Media published five reasons not to get too excited about Elon Musk’s latest re-announcement.
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“The solar roof started life as a stunt back in October 2016, when the Tesla CEO unveiled a rooftop of solar tiles at Universal Studios’ Desperate Housewives set. They looked real, but turned out to be non-functional props,” Greentech recalls. [Not that the props didn’t work: I seem to recall that everyone was convinced, and wowed, at the time.—Ed.]
“Fast-forward three years, and Musk is still baiting and switching with the solar roof,” writes reporter Julian Spector. “On Wednesday’s earnings call with investors, during which he had plenty of legitimate achievements to share, Musk decided to tease yet another solar roof launch. It would be an ‘official product launch’ scheduled for the following afternoon.”
When the Thursday launch failed to materialize, Musk tweeted that he’d meant to promise for Friday.
The release eventually happened, with Musk predicting that sales would grow “like kelp on steroids”. But not before Spector had come up with a list of tough questions about the project, beginning with his observation that solar roof tiles as a product category “have not earned the benefit of the doubt”.
While the mainstream solar industry has relied on commodification and mass production to massively cut costs, “solar roof tiles essentially reject that industrial success story, starting all over again at very small scale,” he explains. And “making matters worse, they historically have delivered worse efficiency in terms of converting sunlight to electricity. Solar roofs require a customer to pay more for a less effective product simply because it looks cleaner.” The market for the product is limited to homeowners who either need a new roof, or are prepared to replace a perfectly good one with solar tiles, and “installation of these tiles is more demanding in labor and skill than a basic solar panel install. The contractor must execute at the level of a professional roofer, preventing leaks and ensuring decades of durability.”
Spector adds that multiple companies have suffered or gone bankrupt after trying to prosper in the solar roof business, and Tesla hasn’t made them work yet, either. “The company has been taking US$1,000 customer deposits for years, and yet seems to have delivered only a few dozen roofs, and at great expense relative to conventional solar,” he writes. While “the charitable reading here is that Tesla ceaselessly iterates to make its technology better,” Spector says Musk essentially admitted on the earnings call that his company took money from customers for a product that was insufficient.
“Versions 1 and 2, we were still sort of figuring things out. Version 3, I think, is finally ready for the big time,” he said. “And so we’re scaling up production of the Version 3 solar tile roof at our Buffalo gigafactory. And I think this product is going to be incredible.”
Tesla’s other disadvantages, Spector says, are that it isn’t a roofing company, in an industry with low margin for error and very expensive side-effects, and its overall track record with solar development doesn’t bode well for the latest venture.
“The roofing play was a stretch back when SolarCity was at the height of its powers; even then, it meant mastering a different line of work. But in three years under Tesla’s management, the residential solar market leader withered to a shell of its former self,” he writes. Now, “that decimated entity is supposed to handle installation for the decidedly more complicated and time-intensive solar tiles.”
So “if conventional rooftop solar proved so hard for Tesla, why would a more complicated version turn out better?
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