Elon Musk declared in March that 2019 would be the year of the solar roof. Six months in, deliveries have continued but questions remain about Tesla’s ambitious vision to make the price point for solar roof installation more accessible, just as the Model 3 did for electric cars.
The remark took place at the company’s March unveiling of the Tesla Model Y, the entry-level compact SUV, at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California. During the presentation, the Tesla CEO declared that 2019 is “definitely going to be the year of the Solar Roof and Powerwall.” It was a grand proclamation, as the futuristic solar-harvesting tiles seemed few and far between.
Musk first unveiled the tiles at a November 2016 event, as part of a grand “house of the future” vision that included a Powerwall battery and a Tesla Model 3 electric car. The roof looks just like an ordinary roof, but collects solar energy to either use in the home or send back to the grid, leveraging the Powerwall top provide a continuous stream of energy throughout the day. The car’s battery is topped up by solar.
While it was a cool vision, the Model 3’s production ramp-up in July 2017 turned out to be Tesla’s real “bet the company” moment. Manufacturing expanded well beyond previous goals, and those cells that would be used for the Powerwall instead went to the Model 3.
“Because of the extreme challenges with the Model 3 production, we had to basically allocate all resources to Model 3 production,” Musk reasoned at the March unveiling. “Otherwise, we were going to die.”
So far, the roof has rolled out quietly. In May 2018 it was reported that Tesla had installed just 12 roofs, including Amanda Tobler’s. Tobler recently gave Inverse a full accounting of her Tesla Solar Roof’s first year, including installation costs and energy savings.
Now that Model 3 production and Tesla is less starved for battery cells, can Elon Musk turn the company’s attention to the solar roof? It depends on who you ask.
Tesla Solar Roof: The Good Side of the First Six Months
There are signs of life in the solar roof business. Families have been spotted in California taking deliveries. CleanTechnica’s Kyle Field also published a quote for his house from Tesla in the state. Another roof quote, spotted by Electrek last month, suggested the installations are relatively expensive, at least for now.
In January, the company gave a brief update on the roof in a letter to investors:
Due to the complexity of Solar Roof, we continue to iterate on the design of the product via intensive reliability testing, and we also continue to refine the installation process. Accordingly, we expect to ramp production more quickly during the first half of 2019.
Three months later, in the next quarterly update, Tesla expanded on this:
We plan to ramp up the production of Solar Roof with significantly improved manufacturing capabilities during 2019, based on the design iterations and testing underway. In the meantime, we are continuing to install Solar Roofs at a slow pace to gather further learnings from our design changes, as well as about the viability of our installation processes by implementing them in areas around the U.S. that are experiencing inclement weather.
In June, at the company’s annual shareholders meeting, Musk suggested that Tesla has made big progress on expanding installations. The firm is now fitting the roof in eight states, a marked improvement over the initial installations that seemed limited to California.
Musk also announced that Tesla is working on a third version of the roof. This, he explained, would be more weather resistant, which would allow installations to begin in even more states with less amenable climates than California’s. It is unclear which installations comprise version one and two of the roof.
Most notably, Musk also implied that Tesla was making progress toward getting pricing down, teasing an even cheaper price point than the quoted $21.85 per square foot. Musk claimed that the company has “a shot at being equal to a comp shingle roof plus someone’s utility costs, or maybe lower than that.”
On the Powerwall side, Tesla has also made progress. The company has switched on a virtual power plant in two states, which provides energy for the local utility firm to avoid the need to fire up dirty coal plants.
Tesla Solar Roof: The Not-So-Good Side of the First Six Months
A big question mark lingers over the current solar roof rollout: How many have actually been installed? Tesla has not revealed a figure.
Another oddity about the roof is that two of the planned tile styles have not yet launched. Tesla only offers textured and smooth styles right now. Pre-orders for more exotic Tuscan and slate styles were expected to start in November 2017 and start shipping in 2018, but the two are still nowhere to be seen.
Tesla’s website currently makes no mention of the Tuscan or slate styles, raising the question of whether they have been scrapped. Amid a tough ramp-up, Tesla may see little need to complicate the manufacturing process by offering too many aesthetic refinements.
“In general, their solar shingles are an interesting product but I don’t see why they will sweat to release them as this is a niche market with little to no competition,” Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, senior research analyst for Navigant, told Inverse in December 2018.
On the whole, while Tesla’s year has been positive, it seems its sunniest days are still to come.