Can you tell which roof has hidden solar panels?

teslasolartiles

Would you believe all of them? Meet integrated rooftop solar.

In the dark of winter, when days are shortest, those of us in northern climes long for the sun. What better time to think about capturing and storing that sun’s energy? Solar electric power has been around for decades, and advances in the technology keep making it more efficient and practical. But for many, the desire to cut the household carbon footprint is tempered by aesthetic concerns. Rooftop solar panels don’t exactly look pretty, unless you’re going for Wall-E-meets-Windows chic.

Enter Tesla Motors. Not just a car company anymore, Tesla recently acquired SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar service provider. And the combo’s flagship product? A solar roof. It’s an array of photovoltaic panels, custom installed, that looks pretty much just like an ordinary roof. It will come in styles including slate and Tuscan tile. And with the star power of CEO Elon Musk, this product with curb appeal just might do for solar rooftop panels what Tesla has done for electric cars—make them cool. All part of the company’s professed mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

Musk unveiled the roof last fall at a shareholders’ meeting held in Universal Studios’ backlot. Investors gathered on a street that has served as the generic suburban setting for TV fare from Leave it to Beaver to Desperate Housewives. To hit the market some time this year, the panels are printed with the shingle-looking designs in a process called hydrographic coloring. They’re made of exceptionally durable tempered quartz glass. See how the material holds up compared to conventional roofing tiles:

Hidden underneath the glass are photovoltaic cells that will harvest the sun’s rays, feeding the energy to Tesla’s Powerwall 2 battery. The company says the battery can power an average two-bedroom home for a full day.

“It looks viable,” said Josh Rollins, LEED AP BD+C. “If it is, it’s a total game-changer.” A senior manager of marketing at Suffolk Construction, Rollins is also a leading member of the company’s Green Committee. “Elon Musk reminds me a bit of Steve Jobs in the way that he hypes his products, but this one is particularly exciting for anyone who’s passionate about reducing their carbon footprint,” Rollins said.

Musk’s presentation lacked some details, but flurries of informed speculation on the part of industry professionals help fill in the blanks. The biggest question to many is the roof’s cost. Musk says Tesla’s system will be cheaper than a traditional roof, when you factor in projected savings on your utility bill over the Tesla roof’s lifetime (50 years).

tesla-solar-roof-2

Image courtesy of Tesla

How could Tesla achieve that lower price tag? For one thing, the quartz glass is a fifth as heavy as typical roofing materials; meaning lower shipping costs. For another, Musk hinted that he’ll cut out middlemen in the current roofing supply chain, with Tesla doing the installations itself.

All that said, the cost of a traditional roof plus the cost of grid electricity is quite steep, so even a figure smaller than that sum will likely still be large. Consumer Reports put the total as high as $70,000, too much for many homeowners to bear up front. Will the company offer financing? What if a homeowner defaults on the loan? Will Tesla rip the roof off and take it back? Unclear as of yet.

But Tesla’s entry into the residential solar market can only be a good thing if you’re rooting for the environment. As many as five million roofs per year need to be replaced. If you need a new roof anyway, why not make it one that will save you money on utilities? At least a certain segment of homeowners will be able to afford the premium Tesla product. And for those who can’t, Tesla’s announcement should bring more attention to other, relatively affordable integrated rooftop solar products.

That’s right, Tesla has competitors in this niche—companies like SunTegra and CertainTeed. Though none of their solar products are quite as invisible as Tesla’s, many are pretty darn unobtrusive, especially compared to the standard rack-mounted panels. (Check out the examples below.) These companies welcome the new publicity. “I have to agree with Elon Musk: the future for roof integrated solar is bright,” wrote SunTegra CEO Oliver Koehler in a trade publication. “It’s going to be an exciting next couple of years.”

certainteed_apollo-west20coast20houselarge

Image courtesy of CertainTeed

suntegra_stifton3-min

Image courtesy of SunTegra

What we really look forward to is learning whether the integrated technology can be scaled up to apartment complexes, and perhaps to even bigger projects—maybe even high-rises. After all, said Rollins, “Why stop at the roof?” Rollins recalled a previous Build Smart blog post about harnessing solar energy with windows, something a skyscraper in Australia plans to do. “Why not cover the skin of the entire building in solar panels? That’s another whole surface area that could be generating electricity,” Rollins said.

Perhaps we can yet break our addiction to supply-limited fossil fuels, thanks in part to visionaries such as Musk. Heck, the last time a Tesla release made us this optimistic, it was an awesome late-1980s power ballad. Here’s to solar finding a way.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.