Exploring If Tesla Solar Roof Is About To Go Mainstream?

Tesla made a huge splash in the solar panel world when they unveiled the latest version of the Tesla Solar Roof. But since then we haven’t seen too much about it. Is it a bargain or a bust? Or are solar tiles about to go mainstream?

When Tesla unveiled version 3 of the Tesla Solar Roof in October of 2019, it caught a lot of our attention. They spent a great deal of time and effort to refine the installation process to make it faster and more affordable to install. Like larger tiles to increase efficiency and manufacturing costs, as well as reducing the number of parts needed for an install by half. In the end it’s reduced the overall cost of installing a Tesla Solar Roof by about 40%.

But since this announcement there hasn’t been much said about it. We’ve seen some customers sharing their experiences online, but I’ve been really curious about what it’s been like to install them, so I reached out to a roofing company that’s doing just that. Elon had mentioned during the announcement that they were most likely going to ramp up a program to bring partner installers into the fold to support the roll out. I had a chance to speak to Eric Weddle from Weddle & Sons Roofing, who’s the CFO and head of their Colorado operations and one of Tesla’s partners.

“So everything’s still kind of a pilot with our relationship. Because we’ve been one of their early entrants, the way that we work with them now may not be the way that we’ll work with them forever. Initially, they shared some leads with us, that had been sitting in their queue for a long time, in territory in Kansas, Nebraska, where they had no direct presence.” “So they’ve kind of been experimenting with redirecting people to us, that are in our territory.”

As a roofing company, it was interesting to hear what the training was like and how well thought out it was.

“… the first week was a classroom warehouse base. So as a team, we would sit in and work through installation stuff, almost in a lecture format. In small classroom just looking at diagrams, looking at illustrations, animations, and then we would go out into the warehouse adjacent, and practice on those things.” “Then you go out and they have two test houses built on site in the corner their Fremont car factory, on Cato road, under a tent, which is nice. And we just did a full scale installation.”

To me the most interesting part of this is that you’d expect solar installers to be the prime candidate in taking on a solar roof installation, but installing a roof is a completely different skillset from installing solar panels. On that front, it gives companies like Weddle & Sons an edge.

“I mean, we have so much to learn, and we’re still learning. We don’t claim to be experts in the solar side of things. I felt like this product and this system, this installation wise, it’s a better fit for a roofing company. Just because there’s so much detailed metalwork and the trends and the flashings and the waterproofing are just critical, because you can’t, once it’s done, you don’t want to be pulling that up. And so I felt like there’s a really good fit for our company as roofers.”

Solar tile products like the Solar Roof are still very new to not just customers, but the industry at large. Tesla isn’t the only game in town here though. There are solar tile products from companies like DelSol Power Tiles and Luma Solar. There are some distinct differences between the systems though. On the aesthetics front the DelSol product doesn’t mask the look of the solar cell much at all. You can clearly see the shiny, reflective cells within those tiles, so you get a lower profile consistent shape, but not color. The Luma Solar product looks far more consistent in color, but the solar cells are still fairly noticeable. And that’s where Tesla stands out from the pack, because they’ve spent a good deal of time and energy in figuring out how to make their tiles blend in closely. On the announcement call they actually spoke to that point.

“We also changed some of the materials in use and changed the methods that we’re using to the technology that we’re using to achieve the hidden solar cells to something that’s more scalable.” -Kunal Girotra, Senior Director Energy Operations “This is one of the hardest things about the Tesla solar glass roof … is not seeing the solar cells beneath the glass because that is kind off-putting to see the cells. And then the hard part is you want this … you want the photons from the sun to get to the solar cells, but not create something which is aesthetically unappealing. It’s quite a hard challenge.” -Elon Musk “Yeah, solar cells are optically isotropic, meaning it can look purple from one angle and green from another. And we have through a number of different iterations and technology experiments landed on a technology that gets the solar tiles the point where they’re anisotropic. So they blend in with the surrounding non-solar tiles and the trim.” -Kunal Girotra, Senior Director Energy Operations “They look the same from any angle.” – Elon Musk “Exactly.” -Kunal Girotra, Senior Director Energy Operations

But just as impressive as that is the cost differences between the systems. Based on an assessment from Solar Power World the Solar Roof costs about $2.11 per installed watt, while DelSol Power Tiles cost about $7 per installed watt and Luma Solar Tiles cost about $4.50 per installed watt. 1 2

Just comparing Tesla’s own prices between regular panels and Solar Roof, you can see the still sizable gap in per-installed watt prices. We’re talking about the difference of $1.49 vs. $2.11. It’s pretty clear that if you’re happy with your roof, you’re not going to want to replace it with a Solar Roof. Going with regular panels is the obvious choice in that case. But what if you are replacing your roof? Or building a new home? How does the price compare to roofing costs? On that Eric had some really nice insights.

“So in simple numbers, it’s substantially more than a basic asphalt roof. It’s probably five times the cost of an asphalt, maybe it’s called four times the cost of a standard asphalt roof on a typical home. But it’s not four times the cost of asphalt plus PV.” “But if you start to compare it to a premium route product, like a standing seam metal, a synthetic shake, or slate, which we do a lot of, we do a lot of it’s Da Vinci’s a common name to do a really nice synthetic slate product. It compares really favorably to premium roof plus solar panels.” “It’s pretty comparable in cost. It’s a little bit more than like a synthetic shake or synthetic slate. But the synthetic product doesn’t have the PV built in. So it’s definitely getting to the point where it’s getting close to those premium roof products. It’s certainly, premium roof plus panels, compares very favorably.”

Ben Sullins put together a great price breakdown last spring between different options. Based on his search criteria he found that a Tesla Solar Roof would cost $56,000. Compare that to:

  • A solar array and shingle roof = $42,000
  • Solar array and metal roof = $70,000
  • Solar array and tile roof = $111,000
  • Solar array and slate roof = $134,000

So just from a roofing cost comparison, even without added solar, the Solar Roof is already fairly competitive with higher-end roofing materials. But when combining higher end roofs plus solar, Tesla’s Solar roof is incredibly compelling. But Eric brought up a point that I hadn’t considered. It’s a similar point that EV enthusiasts bring up with comparing EVs to gasoline cars: cost of maintenance.

“… this is something that has always bothered me working in Colorado, we’d have asphalt roofs to get hailed out and have to be replaced. And you’d incur a pretty significant cost, they’ve already got panels. It’s pretty costly to have those panels pulled, stored, do the roof, get inspections, put the panels back on. And so when you start to take into account that this product should hold up really well to impact, should age well, it has a 25 year warranty from Tesla. And for what I’ve seen, I mean, I expect it to last that long. If you start to compare it to an asphalt roof that only lasts 10 to 15 years, suddenly, it actually even the economics of that start to work out.”

But just how durable are the Solar Roof tiles? I get the question about regular solar panel durability a lot from people considering going solar. Like how well they’ll stand up to hail and the elements. Tempered glass is pretty strong.

“I mean, I think they’re pretty amazing. I’ve got one here. So this is one of the glass ones. It’s non active PV and kind of see the, I don’t know what the thickness is, it’s about a quarter inch or three eighths of an inch or something. We’ll walk on these all day long, can jump on, will drop stuff on, I mean, I can kind of I can compound on its glass. I wouldn’t do that on one of my windows. You [inaudible 00:27:27] temporary. But I’ve done this to point where I’d bruise my fist.”

Add to that the modularity of the tiles. It’s like lego blocks snapping into place, so the modularity makes it easier to repair.

“So if you break one of these tiles, something happens and you break it, tree falls on it, gets shot with a bullet, who knows. All you have to do because they’re temporary, they just shatter into pretty safe sized pieces. Just take a shop vac, you vacuum it up, you slap a new tile. The clips that they hang on, there’s a slot to hold a clip, and there’s hangers, super easy to pop one out, pop a new one in.” “And so as a roofer, I really like that, because I see roofs that get replaced, asphalt roofs that get replaced all the time, because they’ve got X number of impacts. And it’s not practical to go replace 20 or 30 shingles. And so an insurance company will buy the whole roof.” “And so with solar roof, maybe you do have a massive hailstorm, maybe it knocks out 30 or 40 tiles, vastly cheaper to repair that, than replace it. I mean, all of the work is done underneath the tiles. Once the layouts done, the tiles just snap in. And so I envision that repairability is actually going to be a real advantage going forward.”

In the end the Solar Roof may prove to be cheaper to maintain and repair than other roofing materials, so that’s something you should factor into the cost depending on where you live. Especially if you live in an area with hail. But the modularity benefit doesn’t stop there.

“…on my brother’s roof, we made some wiring mistakes, just because they’re so early, we were ahead of the training documentation. And so we’re in the process of fixing that. And it’s been a good case study, actually, in the repairability. It’s actually been pretty easy to go back and pop up a section of… In fact, we actually popped up a section of his dummy tiles, and replaced them with active PV tiles after the fact. It’s really easy. We used almost all the same clips.”

That’s right … they expanded the PV system of the roof. Pretty plug and play in that regard. This isn’t something that Tesla is speaking of or using as a selling point, but it’s pretty cool that you could theoretically add to or upgrade tiles down the road.

But much like everything else in the world, you have to follow the money. Affordability and price competitiveness is the only way forward for solar tiles to catch on and go truly mainstream. Elon’s goal is to make the Solar Roof truly cost competitive with even asphalt shingles and solar panels. One area to drive that cost down is on installation. And Eric had a take on that from an installers point of view.

“But for us, there’s a point at which it becomes a very attractive segment for us. And that it really comes down to the days to install. And so, something that takes us four days, on paper, it may turn a profit, but the opportunity cost is pretty high, we could have done better things, those four days. If we can get that down to two days, it suddenly becomes a really attractive segment for us. But to do that, means we have to be perfect on our execution and planning. Means we have to have exactly the right tools for the job, know the steps that we’re going through. But that excites us, we enjoy that kind of thing.”

There’s already a lot of pent up demand for the Solar Roof at its current price point. People have been reporting long wait times to get one installed and Eric has a long wait list of his own.

“… so we’ve got another eight that are lined up, we’re starting our third, next week. And fourth, fifth, and sixth are ordered, one of them is sitting, waiting only on permitting. And then a bunch of them are piling up.” “You asked what challenges are. Other challenges, we’re sitting on probably 200 requests that were a backlog of probably 200, and more requests for quotes.”

That’s 200 requests just for the area Weddle & Sons Roofing serves. Roll that kind of demand out across the country … and the world … and you can see that Tesla is really onto something here. Just imagine how much that demand will ramp up as they continue to drive the costs down even further. From a customer’s point of view, I think the Solar Roof is on the verge of going mainstream. And from an installers point of view …

“Yeah, we like the challenge. And honestly, we’ve had a great relationship with Tesla. And they’re trying to do something very hard. And they have a track record of doing a lot of very hard things. And so every time that I’m feeling skeptical about something I remember, the same guy behind this landed rockets vertically, I think they can figure this out. At least I don’t think I want to bet against it.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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