Tesla and Elon Musk have been on a mission to make their Solar Roof tiles the go-to solution if you’re considering a new roof plus solar panels. Why buy and install two separate products when you can make one that does both? I don’t know about you, but my neighborhood has a lot of solar panels, but is still looking a little scrimpy on the solar roof front. So what happened? Increased prices, installation times that still take the better part of a week, and new competition that may beat Tesla on price and installation time. There’s some interesting solar tile and shingle competition out there now, like a new solar shingle that got a lot of buzz at this year’s CES. But where are they?
What’s the difference between solar panels and solar shingles?
At CES 2022 a new solar shingle product won an innovation award that looks very promising and garnered a lot of buzz. A product that’s supposed to be affordable and fast to install, but before getting to that, what’s the big deal surrounding solar shingles vs the regular solar panels we’re all familiar with in the first place? First, we need to talk about the difference between solar panels and solar shingles (or you could just call them “solar roofs”).
Solar panels are like a not-so-fashionable hat for your roof. They attach to your existing roof as a separate apparatus altogether. It’s what I’ve got on my roof. Solar shingles, on the other hand, are more like a sustainable blanket for your roof. In some cases, they cover your existing roof like a second skin. In other cases, they are your roof (but better–at least, in theory).
As you might imagine, these design differences make for very different buying experiences in the long run. Some of those key differences will be:
- How aesthetically pleasing your roof looks.
- The frequency (and feasibility) of maintenance and repairs.
- The efficiency of your panels once in use.
- And finally: the cost! Depending on the look and technology, the average cost for solar shingles ranges around $15,000 to $20,0001 on the low end, and for premium brands, like Tesla’s Solar Roof tiles, they can cost you up $45,000 to $70,0002
Pros and Cons To Solar Roofs
So have solar roofs gained any advantage in the residential solar tech field? Let’s go over a few of the pros and cons as it stands now.
First, the pros.
- Solar shingles are designed to be sleek and minimalistic compared to the bulky look of solar panels, and blend into your existing roof, so neighbors might not even know it’s solar (if you care about that sort of thing). I kind of like how solar panels look.
- If you need to replace your roof, or are doing a new home build, solar shingles can be more cost-effective in roofing material and labor, compared to installing a conventional roof and adding solar panels later. It does depend on the type of roofing material you’re comparing it to though. And it’s the epitome of “two birds, one stone”.
- Since solar tiles & shingles are installed via slats, they’re incredibly easy to remove and reinstall if they ever get damaged. All you need to do is sweep up the broken pieces, remove the damaged tile, and reinstall the replacement. It can actually be easier than replacing asphalt shingles. I actually spoke about that exact issue with a Tesla Solar Roof installer in a previous video.
Like all innovative technologies, solar roofs also come with some cons.
- These shingles require special care during installation, so anyone who wants a solar roof of their own has to go through approved roofers who are trained in the craft. That may not be an issue if you’re in a well-populated area, but customers in rural areas may not have as many options to choose from.
- Solar roof panels come in set sizes, depending on the manufacturer. If your roof is flat and simple, that may not be an issue; however, complex or other “weird” roof shapes and angles may struggle to fit the solar shingles and tiles in a way that makes sense.
- If you’re looking to get a solar roof anytime soon, you may be disappointed. Wait times can still range from several months to years depending on your installer of choice.
- Finally, cost. It’s still not at mainstream prices yet.
The status of Tesla’s Solar Roof, Six Years Later
So when we talk about a solar roof, Tesla is probably the company you think of first. They’ve done an incredible job innovating in this space and getting a lot of attention. There’s definitely power in a well-known brand who have already made a name for themselves in the renewable energy sphere. Tesla’s Solar Roof is proving to be a great product, but why has the rollout been so slow?
Their dream for solar roofs was big, but after their launch, it quickly became apparent that the actual manpower behind it had yet to catch up completely. Some excited customers put in their deposits to preorder their solar roof installation, only to be told 2 years later that Tesla no longer planned to serve their region.3 Customers within Tesla’s service areas still had to contend with the huge waitlist, a problem only compounded as production struggled to ramp up in time with the incredible demand.
But the biggest problem: the cost. The initial price tag was fine with most customers; it was when Tesla changed them at the last minute that got people a little heated.
In April 2021, customers still waiting on their solar roof installation started to get notices alerting them that the prices for their solar roofs were going up, sometimes as much as 100 percent.4 I had several of you reach out to me with details on price hikes you saw, which caused some of you to cancel.5 After a lot of turmoil around the pricing issues, Tesla did start to honor customer’s original quotes if they were already under contract.
But it’s important to point out that the biggest culprit in the Tesla solar pricing fiasco was inaccurate estimates at the beginning of the process. Tesla’s streamlined online ordering system and satellite photos that are used to give an initial estimate had issues. More complex roof structures can dramatically increase the labor requirements for the installation. This wasn’t getting properly captured in early iterations of their system. Since then Tesla has improved the system to give more accurate estimates earlier in the process.
Tesla Solar roof alternatives
But the world of solar roofing doesn’t begin and end with Tesla. Tesla may be a big name, but many other companies have slowly inched up in the solar roof race. Here are just a few of the many contenders fighting to knock Tesla from their solar roof pedestal and get products into our hands.
Luma Solar Luma Solar is a US solar company that actually claims that they created the first solar roof In America—“maybe the world”. Whether or not you believe that claim, they do have an impressive history behind them, as they’ve received Presidential endorsements and international awards. More recently, they’ve created a solar shingle system that’s upgradeable.
Their costs can be a little harder to pin down. Luma prides themselves in creating personalized systems based on your exact roof. You’re looking at about $38/solar square foot installed, or in terms of the actual energy involved, about $4.50 a watt.
These shingles are installed like traditional metal roofing, and they also use single-hole install methods (meaning they only have to penetrate the shingle once for the wire to go through the roof deck.6 7
Certainteed Certainteed roof shingles use the same mono-crystalline solar PV technology as traditional solar cells. While traditional panels use a racking system, Certainteed solar roof shingles are literally built into your roof to be an integral part of it. This keeps the shingles unobtrusive and low profile.
Certainteed offers the Apollo II and the Apollo II tile system, both of which produce about 60 watts per 14 solar cells. In terms of efficiency, Certainteed is definitely on the lower end of things at 16% efficiency. However, they are a strong candidate when you’re seeking a low-cost option with those long-term savings.
Sunroof.se The Swedish company, Sunroof.se, is embracing the high-tech look of solar panels. They definitely look like a solar roof, but for some people, that’s the whole point!
These panels use the monocrystalline silicon and polycrystalline silicon glass in its design, with an impressive 18.80% efficiency. Sunroof.se also guarantees 80% of the original production capacity after 30 years of operations, which makes these panels a great option for the long haul!
SolteQ SolteQ may not be as well known in residential circles, but this company was actually the winner of the German Sustainability Award in 2021! These interlocking tiles are meant to be installed directly onto the plywood. SolteQ offers a 40 year performance warranty (10 more years than Tesla offers), and they offer several options depending on the type of roof that you have.8
GAF Energy GAF is one of the competitors to make a recent splash onto the scene, and already, they’ve made quite the impression. At CES 2022, GAF Energy (a subsidiary of Standard Industries, one of the biggest roofing leaders in the US) introduced the Timberline solar shingle, which won an innovation award.
The biggest change? Unlike other solar panels, Timberline can be installed with a nail gun directly on your roof. This shingle-like design makes it easier for any roofer to learn, not just the specialized installers.
This easy installation has other domino effects as well. For one, the learning curve and installation time goes way down. While Tesla Solar Roof can take a week down to a couple of days to install, Timberline only requires a few days, sometimes as few as two, according to GAF themselves.9 But it is important to point out that all solar roof systems are striving to get the installation time down to a day or two, including Tesla.
Why is that particular point important? Well, installation is typically the largest expense for residential solar energy systems.10 Think of the labor cost difference between 5 days of work versus 2; those numbers add up fast! It’s also why it’s difficult to give price estimates in this video.
The electrical components and wiring are located on top of their shingle (instead of underneath, like other shingles). That makes it far easier to service those parts when the time comes (which, as a result, makes those repairs quicker, and in theory, less expensive). Each shingle is also nearly 20” longer than the typical Tesla shingle, which ultimately means fewer electric components to deal with in the same square area.11
Solar shingles are usually flush with the roof, which means they get hotter faster (which generally reduces their efficiency). To counteract this, GAF uses high-energy efficiency cells called mono PERC cells, which should perform better than traditional monocrystalline PV cells at high temps.
What makes mono-PERC cells different? In typical solar cells, you have an emitter layer on top, and a black coating underneath. Mono-PERC cells use a sunlight-absorbing front later and a dielectric passivation film on the rear side to absorb any scattered light. The result: mono-PERC cells have higher light absorption and internal reflectivity.12 That means they can have a higher energy density to make the most of the limited space on your roof.13
This does lead to a few questions when you look at how the Timberline performs in terms of energy output. At 45 watts per square foot, the Timberline is still way behind Tesla’s impressive 71.1 watt output. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Timberline shingles overlap each other, which leads to less active material at work. GAF claims that if you only consider the active solar cells, the shingle’s match Tesla’s efficiency, but that remains to be seen at this point.14
GAF has already sold and installed 3,000 integrated roofs since 2017 of their previous products, which is still more than Tesla has installed (at least, according to GAF’s president Debano).15 So how have they gotten off to such a strong start compared to Tesla?
For starters, GAF is already a staple in the roofing industry, so they have a distinct advantage in the solar roof market. One out of every 4 residential roofs in the US comes from GAF; this plugs them into finding new solar customers easily. Customer acquisition normally represents about 23% of the total cost of a solar residential system, so by being plugged into this market, GAF is already ahead of the game.
Even with its flaws, the Timberline already has some pretty exciting potential. GAF is already working on Timberline 2.0, so we hopefully don’t have to wait too long to see what’s around the corner.
Solar Shingles Future
So, solar roofs: are they the game-changers Elon Musk promised in 2016, or are they a pipe dream?
Well, honestly…I would say neither. Like all new and renewable energy technologies, there are a lot of kinks to work out, and getting the best product is going to take a little creativity and a LOT of patience. We’re probably better off seeing solar roofs as a piece of the overall puzzle, instead of the paradigm-shifting product that some advocates tried to sell them as.
One thing has definitely been confirmed in the past 6 years: under the status quo, solar roofs are going to have a hard time on the residential market. The biggest factor is sadly going to be what it usually comes down to: the cost … combined with labor. Price truly drives everything when it comes to renewable tech like this. This is especially true depending on where you live: if you live in a 2,000 sq. foot house valued at $150k in the middle of Iowa, a $50k roof is going to be a much harder sell than if you’re in a 2,000 sq. foot house valued at $600k in Massachusetts. The cost analysis can look completely out of whack depending on where you are.
At this point solar roofs are a better fit for the higher end of the market. These types of customers have less of a hard time with the higher price tag and can give the industry time to improve costs, ramp up labor and training for the lower end of the market. It’s not that different from luxury cars. It could just be an aspirational product for the time being as things continue to work themselves out.
Developments like the Timberline panels are a crucial step in the right direction to produce solar roofs affordably at scale, and Tesla is continuing to refine their production and installation procedures to drive down costs too.
Timing is a huge factor here. Anyone in marketing will tell you that you want to get your message to the customer as early as possible, so that you’re involved with the decision as it happens. The best time to get a solar roof is the moment when…shocker…you’re about to replace your roof! No one wants to drop $50k to replace a roof that still has decades to go. Or to be on a waitlist if they need a new roof right now. If solar roof companies can join the conversation early on, and have the supply and installers to match demand, customers are in a better position to choose the solar experience. Until all those things align, we’re going to have to continue being patient and use logic to determine what’s the right solution for us in the time being.
- Solar Magazine – “Solar Shingles: Turn Your Roof a Power Source (5 Brands)”↩
- Business Insider – “Tesla has been hit with a class-action lawsuit over its Solar Roof price hikes, led by customer who says his contract got jacked up from $71,000 to $146,000”↩
- Electrek – “Tesla starts canceling Solar Roof orders after years of taking deposits”↩
- The Verge – “Solar Flare: Why Tesla’s Price Hike Has Customers Seeing Spots”↩
- Business Insider – “Elon Musk says Tesla can’t make enough Powerwall storage batteries to meet demand because of the chip shortage”↩
- Luma Solar↩
- Axion Power – “Are Solar Shingles Worth It? Tesla Competitors, Cost, and Comparisons”↩
- SolteQ – Solar Roof Tiles↩
- The Verge – “The solar roof could finally become a reality thanks to GAF Energy’s nailable solar shingles”↩
- Energysage – “Tesla solar roof cost vs. solar panels: worth the premium?”↩
- CNBC – “Roofing giant takes on Tesla to make solar roof shingles more affordable”↩
- Dielectric surface passivation for silicon solar cells: A review↩
- Regen Power – “Why choose Mono PERC panels for your rooftop solar system?”.↩
- CNBC – “Roofing giant takes on Tesla to make solar roof shingles more affordable”↩
- Canary Media – “GAF Energy has installed more solar roofs than Tesla”↩