Can you tell which roof has hidden solar panels?

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).

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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.”

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Image courtesy of CertainTeed

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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.

MIT students win Hyperloop competition

In November, we posted a story about SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s proposed supersonic transportation network called Hyperloop. This past weekend, Musk’s dream for the Hyperloop took another important step toward becoming a reality.

Elon Musk’s futuristic Hyperloop transportation promises to rocket pods through an above-ground steel tube at speeds of more than 750 miles per hour, allowing passengers to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 35 minutes. That’s faster than the one-and-a-half hour flight and nearly six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. 

But how will these pods actually look and move through the tube, and how will they hit these incredible velocities without their passengers feeling any sensations of speed? Last year, Musk decided to leave these not-so-minor details to some of the world’s most innovative and forward-thinking colleges and universities as he launched a world-wide competition for the best pod design.

The judging took place this past weekend … and we have a winner!

Congratulations to the team of 25 brilliant and innovative students from MIT who took home the first place prize in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition at Texas A&M University on Sunday.

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MIT’s winning pod design features “a passive magnetic levitation system that incorporates two arrays of 20 neodymium magnets,” according to the team’s website. (Photo courtesy of MIT)

 

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The 25-member MIT team includes students specializing in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and business management. (Photo courtesy of MIT)

The MIT team’s pod design beat out 160 competing teams from 27 universities charged with creating the future capsule for the Hyperloop system. The remainder of the top 5 finishers included Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and University of California (Irvine).

“It’s great to see our hard work recognized, and we are excited to have the opportunity to continue to push this technology one step closer to reality,” members of the MIT Hyperloop Team told the Boston Globe.

The judges were impressed by MIT’s 551-pound pod covered in carbon fiber and polycarbonate sheets. Accelerating at 2.4 Gs, the pod is designed to use magnets so it can levitate 15 millimeters above the track as it glides on a cushion of air. A fail-safe braking system was incorporated into the design, “meaning if the actuators or computers fail, the system will brake automatically,” the team wrote on its website.

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Musk’s Hyperloop inches closer to the future

With holiday travel fast approaching we have transportation on our minds. Check out Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which could someday transport passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco at supersonic speeds. Stay tuned for future posts on innovation in airports, as well as the passenger-train project All Aboard Florida.

The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX, Elon Musk, is now turning his attention to a supersonic transportation system called Hyperloop.

The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX, Elon Musk is now turning his attention to a supersonic transportation system called Hyperloop.

When you inevitably curse your decision to drive, fly or take the train to grandma’s this Thanksgiving, take solace that some of the country’s smartest engineers are working on a better way to get there: Visionary billionaire Elon Musk’s supersonic ground transportation system. Like something out of a Jules Verne novel, Hyperloop pods travel through a steel tube at speeds of more than 750 miles per hour. But passengers being rocketed through the California countryside would feel no sensation of speed. The above-ground transit system is incredibly faster than the one-and-a-half-hour flight and nearly six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The 35-minute Hyperloop trip would make it possible to live in San Francisco and commute to L.A.

Hyperloop would travel more than two times faster than the world’s fastest train, Japan’s new maglev bullet train, which currently travels at speeds up to 366 mph. 

Best of all, Hyperloop is estimated to only cost $20 one way. Plus, it would be quieter and more environmentally friendly than existing modes of transit.

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New Tesla battery has game-changing potential for energy consumption

We’re more than a little excited about Elon Musk’s big unveil late last week of Tesla’s new battery.

We’re hoping that one of the most progressive innovators of this century is doing for commercial batteries what Steve Jobs did for laptops, music and mobile phones. This launch means we’re one step closer to lessening our dependence on fossil fuels by making solar, and wind power, more practical for residential and commercial properties.

Go Elon! Go!

Do you share our excitement?  Let us know in the comments below.

For more information on Tesla’s Powerwall and Powerpack click here.