Amanda Tobler is possibly the world’s most extreme early-tech adopter. A year ago, she agreed to let Tesla replace the roof of her house in California, with solar-harvesting energy tiles. Failure could mean her home losing power, her property losing value, or even its contents getting exposed to the elements.
The company has claimed she’s the first customer to install the Tesla Solar Roof, which CEO Elon Musk considers part of a fully sustainable future where homes and electric cars run on zero-emission sunlight. Musk claimed at this year’s shareholder meeting on June 11 that the company is hopeful it can bring the roof’s price down to reach the equivalent of a standard shingle roof plus utility bills. If Tobler’s testimony is anything to go by, the roof has a bright future ahead — with some caveats.
“We have no regrets about choosing to install the solar roof,” Tobler, who lives with her family in San Jose, California, tells Inverse in June 2019, one year after the roof was installed. “I would say, currently, it is not for everyone, mainly just because of price factors.”
For Tobler, installing the roof came down to a perfect storm of factors. The family has lived in the state for over 15 years, and Tobler always wanted to go solar. The house, built in 1965, came with a metal roof that made installing panels impossible. When Tesla’s preorder page went live in May 2017, the family opted to replace the aging roof and live their solar dreams.
The solar roof has become an increasingly important product for Tesla. Musk said at the shareholder event that the company is now installing the roof in eight states, and work is almost complete on version three. He added that the design is “actually quite a hard technology problem,” and tests need to simulate 30 years of wear and tear in the space of a few months. Musk added that “we have a shot at being equal to a comp shingle roof plus someone’s utility costs, or maybe lower than that.”
Tesla’s solar roof efforts have gradually ramped up since the spring 2018 rollout. In October 2019, Musk unveiled a third-generation tile. The new tile is bigger, redesigned on the inside, likely to hide the solar cells better, and is designed for speedy installation.
The new tiles are launching in a textured style, with new designs expected every six months through the accelerated testing process. They measure 15 inches by 45 inches, where the old ones measured 8.65 inches by 14 inches. They also reduce the number of parts by over half.
Installation should be a lot more straightforward with the third-generation tile. Tesla is expected to work with third-party installers to fit new roofs within eight hours. They now use a straightforward trimming on the edge, instead of the custom-built design, and should avoid the need to cut the tiles on site to make them fit.
Perhaps crucially, they should be cheaper. Musk has quoted the new tiles as reaching the cost of an average roof plus solar panels. An analysis from Electrek found that a 9.45-kilowatt roof measuring 1,862 square foot cost $64,634 under the old system, with a final cost of $85,000 after the battery and on-site repairs factored in. These figures dropped to $38,266 and $54,866 under the new tiles.
Thanks to these changes, Tesla is set to offer the tiles in more places than ever before. Tobler’s roof, although an older design, could become a more common sight.
A year after Inverse first spoke with Tobler, she updated us in June 2019 on the things that you only realize after owning a Tesla Solar Roof for a year.
9. Tesla Will Give You a Lot of Attention
Tesla got in touch in January 2018 to finalize the installation process, before installing the roof over a rain-soaked, three-week period. The family officially switched on the roof on March 30, 2018.
That wasn’t the end of Tesla’s involvement. The team recorded footage and took photos of the installation, and also set them up with a direct representative. Tesla sent a team around to help fix the roof on one occasion. Among the Tesla fan community, the Tobler family became something of a celebrity. Tobler’s tweet about the roof received nearly 5,000 retweets.
“Tesla is a pretty polarizing company,” Tobler tells me. While there were “lots of super fans” that think “it’s amazing,” there were also “some people that really are convinced that Tesla is a fraud company, and that we’ve gotten suckered into buying something.” On the more extreme end, Tobler noted that some thought the whole project was “an elaborate sham,” and some people “just straight up think that it doesn’t actually exist.”
Fortunately, the family never experienced any of this negativity in real life. Tobler even got a mention during Musk’s presentation at the Tesla annual shareholder meeting in June 2018, quoting her as the “first solar roof customer.”
There was just one problem — the house in the photo is not her house.
“I thought it was funny,” Tobler says, explaining that Tesla paired her quote with a photo of Tri Huynh’s house about 50 miles north. “I don’t know if they just got them mixed up.”
8. It Is Not Possible to Go Off-Grid or to Ditch Your Energy Bill
The solar roof is a tantalizing financial prospect. The solar-generating tiles cost $42 per square foot, and non-solar dummy tiles cost $11 per square foot. The company recommends a mix of 35-percent solar tiles on a full roof, coming to around $21.85 per square foot.
Tobler’s roof measures 2,000 square feet and uses 40-percent solar tiles. That’s enough to harvest 9.85 kilowatts of power, and Tesla refused to give them anything larger. Tobler’s Tesla Solar Roof was $50,000, which includes a federal investment tax credit.
Seems like a good way to ditch your energy bills, right? Unfortunately, that’s not possible. The family needs to pay a small fee to stay connected to the grid, and it’s not possible to insist on going fully off-grid during the install process.
Inverse reviewed a redacted version of the family’s “true-up” annual report, provided by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, starting from the bill issued to date May 14, 2018, and ending with the bill issued to date April 16, 2019. The summary shows a year-to-date minimum delivery charge of $119.61. This, Tobler explained, is an unavoidable annual fee for maintaining a connection to the grid.
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7. You Will Probably Give Surplus Energy to the Grid…
While the power company charges a base fee for keeping the home connected, the family does receive reimbursement for sending excess energy to the grid. The roof is connected to a 13.5 kilowatt-hour Powerwall 2 battery on the side of the house, monitored through a smartphone app that stores energy for when the sun is not shining. The system can send the excess back to the grid if there’s still leftover power that needs to go somewhere.
The annual report shows that, over the course of one year, the family sent a net total of 1,177 kilowatt-hours back to the grid. As a reimbursement, the power company issued a net surplus compensation of $42.25 at the end of the year, or around 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That helps bring down the cost of grid connections, but … they still need to pay a bill of $77.36 for the entire year.
In a follow-up message, Tobler subsequently explained that her energy bills for the 12 months prior came to around $4,000 total. That means she saved around $3,922 for the year. Assuming the trend holds true, Tobler could expect to save enough to cover the roof’s cost in 13 years, and would have saved $117,660 over the course of 30 years.
It could potentially offer even greater cost savings. Data from Zillow shared by Musk in October 2019 showed the average sale price of a house rises by 4.1 percent with solar included.
6. …and You Will Take Some Energy From the Grid
Tobler initially wanted to run the home entirely off solar and leave grid power alone completely. The main flaw in this plan was the two cars: an all-electric Nissan Leaf that uses up to nine kilowatts when charging, and a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid that can send usage to 10 kilowatts, with others using electronics in the house.
This took a toll on the Powerwall, which failed on a near-monthly basis. After speaking with Tesla and meeting with an engineer, the family changed their energy habits a few months after installing to avoid placing a strain on the system. It meant taking potentially non-renewable energy from the grid, but it fixed the issue and the family still completed the year selling more energy than they took from the grid.
Combining the give and take of grid electricity shows how the system generated masses of excess power in the summer, enough to compensate for grid dependency in the winter months.
The spike in May 2018 is due to the house being repainted. Tesla advised the family to switch off the roof and remove tiles during the multi-week process, ensuring the painter’s ladder wouldn’t damage the less durable non-solar tiles.
5. The Smartphone App Is Smart
The smartphone app, which links to the roof, was one of Tobler’s favorite features when the system went live. She would switch on and off various household appliances, monitoring their energy consumption. Some spikes, like the dryer, shocked her.
Twelve months later, the novelty has worn off. The app is still useful, however, as it enables the user to set peak rate energy times. The family’s energy plan charges around 45 cents per kilowatt-hour at peak times, but around two-thirds the price at night. The app knows to prioritize taking energy from the grid instead of draining the battery. That ensures the power store is ready to go during the peak rate hours, reducing energy prices.
4. Power Cuts Are a Thing of the Past
One of the strangest things about the system is it serves as an uninterruptible power supply. That means, on the handful of occasions where the neighborhood loses power, Tobler doesn’t even notice.
“If I don’t go and look at the list to see what incidents have happened, then I have no idea that we’ve had an outage because it just happens seamlessly,” Tobler says. “There’s no lights flickering or any indication.”
3. Your Home Will Sparkle
For the most part, Tobler found the system blends into the background. The app is no longer the novelty it once was. The home just works, and visitors barely notice the roof.
They do, however, notice that something is slightly askew. Tobler opted for the textured style of roof tile over smooth. More exotic Tuscan and slate designs are due later. These initial designs, Tobler notes, make for a shimmering roof.
"It looked like my house had almost like a halo."
“There was one bizarre moment once where the sun was just at the perfect angle, and it looked like my house had almost like a halo for a brief moment,” Tobler says. “That’s the only time I’ve ever had that happen. For the most part it’s just, I don’t know, a slightly shinier version of the roofs that are around us in the neighborhood.”
2. Its Resilience Is a Big Mystery
Tesla claims the glass on the roof is three times stronger than asphalt or slate, except for the non-solar variants that need to be weaker so the team can cut them to size. The firm offers an “infinity” warranty on the tiles themselves and a 30-year warranty on its solar-generating capabilities. But Tobler was unable to put the roof to the test, perhaps as the local weather was relatively mild.
“Other than some occasional heavy rain? No, there hasn’t been anything particularly extreme in terms of weather,” Tobler says. “Weather tends to be fairly mild around here.”
Tesla is rumored to be developing a third version of the tiles as it expands production and moves outside of California. Stronger weather-resistant capabilities may be necessary for these alternate climates and could explain why Tobler was among the first.
1. It’s Not for Everyone … Yet
Tobler’s first year has been a roaring success, and she has no regrets about her purchase. However, she says that the price will have to come down before the Tesla Solar Roof could go mainstream. The cost made sense for her compared to buying a new roof and installing solar in the Bay Area, but a $150,000 homeowner in the Midwest may think twice about installing a roof that costs a third of their house.
“People talk about early flat screen TVs or early computers,” Tobler says. “People wound up paying a lot more. Now you can go and buy a flat screen TV for a few hundred dollars sometimes. And I feel like this is a little bit like that, where I have no doubt that we paid something of a premium price for this product. And that, in order to really be able to roll it out to the masses, the price will have to become more affordable.”
Musk first demonstrated the solar roof as part of his “house of the future” presentation in fall 2016. While the Powerwall and Tesla Model 3 electric car featured in the presentation have reached thousands of consumers, the roof to top it all off may, for now, remain more in the realm of future-facing technology.
Tesla suggested during its announcement of the third-generation tiles that it would likely ship to all 25 states offering solar retrofit in the United States. However, Musk was keen to note that the roof only makes sense if the buyer is already replacing the roof, and in many cases, adding solar on top of an existing roof might be a smarter choice.
If Musk can achieve his goal of almost reaching the equivalent of a regular roof, that could change the conversation entirely.