As the benefits of solar power become more and more attractive, you may be considering going solar, and quite possibly, the sleek aesthetics of solar roof tiles have caught your eye. You may even be one of those who have pre-ordered them.
Tesla’s solar roof tiles were supposed to be available just last summer, according to a tweet from Elon Musk in the spring of 2020. We’re now stepping into 2021, and solar roof tiles have not been installed in a single home in the UK.
Although some customers have put down an 800-pound deposit, Tesla has yet to deliver on the product. This leaves many customers still wondering, when will the solar roof tiles arrive in the UK?
An Intriguing Product
From the moment of their unveiling a little over four years ago, Tesla’s solar roof tiles have been an intriguing concept. They marry the utility of solar panels with the eye-pleasing aesthetics of normal roof tiles or shingles.
The current version of the roof tiles will cost around $42,500 when installed on a 2,000 square foot roof in the US, and they will provide a 10kW solar capacity. They come with a 25-year guarantee and are designed to integrate with Powerwall 2, Tesla’s home battery that can store up to 14 kWh of energy.
This makes for a tantalizing and, one would think, profitable leap forward in the solar industry. So why is it taking so long to roll out the product? After promises in 2016, then again in 2018, and again in 2019, the UK has yet to see this product, and the number of installations in the United States is nowhere near the expectations Tesla set.
One solar company doesn’t expect to see Tesla’s solar roof become available until later in 2021.
Solar Potential in the UK
It’s all the more frustrating that solar roof tiles from Tesla aren’t available yet in the UK because the solar potential in Great Britain is substantial.
One wouldn’t initially think of Britain as being solar-friendly because of a long rainy season. However, solar panels can draw energy from the sun even during overcast days.
According to one website, 900,000 homes in the UK have already converted to solar, and the country has a combined solar capacity of 13.26 GW, which can power up to 3 million homes in Britain.
The UK is the third-largest producer of solar energy in the European Union, and solar energy is the third most generated alternative form of energy.
Yet, at this point, the UK remains without a solar roof option from Tesla, with no date for the beginning of installation forthcoming.
Fraught with Difficulties
From the time Tesla unveiled its solar roof concept just prior to merging with SolarCity in October 2016, until now, the solar roof project has been fraught with difficulties. Some of them have to do with Tesla, and some have to do with the nature of what they are trying to achieve.
Prior to the end of 2019, other companies had tried to make the concept of solar roof work at scale, but none had been able to.
According to Greentech Media, Dow Chemical took a shot at it in 2016 but gave up. RSG Energy took over the brand in 2019, claiming to have increased efficiency by 50% and to have partnered with roofers for installation, but it stopped supporting it not long after.
Other companies have tried to work with a type of roof that either sits on top of an existing roof, or is a metal seam roof, but these are different concepts from that of a solar roof.
What Is a Solar Roof?
A solar roof is a concept wherein the entire roof of a home generates electricity through roof tiles or shingles that double as little solar panels.
Each tile is made up of wire, a photosensitive, waterproof covering, and material that generates electrical current from sunlight. Tesla makes its solar roof to integrate with their Powerwall 2 battery, which stores the energy that the panels create.
In the standard approach to solar power, companies install arrays of panels on an existing roof to generate the electricity needed for the home. These panels are installed on angels of the roof where sunlight is most direct and dominant throughout the year.
Solar roof tiles utilize the receptive solar potential of an entire roof. But roof tiles don’t just have the one job to do as with panels. They have to function like good old fashioned roof tiles, which means they must keep off rain, be resistant to high winds, and be durable against hailstorms.
The fact that solar roof tiles have to do double duty makes them more expensive to make and to install than normal solar panels.
Why Has the Solar Roof Concept Been So Hard to Establish?
While some of the reasons for the delay of solar roof tiles have to do with Tesla, others have to do with the nature of the product and its market.
You might think they’re just like solar panels, only smaller, so what’s the big deal? Here are a couple of reasons why solar roof tiles represent a paradigm shift for the industry.
The solar industry has been around long enough to experience the benefits that come to any industry that has paid its dues, proved itself viable, created a public demand, and met it.
Solar panels are now easy and cheap to make, and the process of installing them has been refined as well. Solar installation companies have gone through the break-in period to where solar is now a common feature on homes. But the manufacture and install of solar tiles are still very new.
Solar roofs are different enough to make and install from the concept of solar panels that they are basically like a new product.
By starting with an entirely new product that doesn’t really build on the infrastructure of the old one, selling solar roof tiles means building a whole new industry. After all, they are not just an addition to a roof, but the roof itself.
The proposition is made more problematic by the fact that solar roof tiles are less efficient than their larger, older brothers. This means Tesla is trying to sell solar roof tiles to a narrow market of people who will go for a more expensive product that is less efficient because it is more aesthetically pleasing than the old one.
The fact that solar roof tiles replace an existing roof further narrows the market. Tesla either has to wait for people’s roofs to go bad so they can think about going with a solar roof, or they have to count on people to rip out their existing roofs because they want so badly to go with a solar one.
Finally, the functional and technological aspects of the solar roof tile require a labor base with a similar bevy of skills. This base doesn’t really exist yet, because the product is so new.
Greentech Media sums up the situation by noting that the three challenges are cost, the market, and the labor base, and these challenges have defeated other companies who have tried to make a go of it.
Why Has Tesla Taken So Long to Make Solar Roof Tiles Available?
There are many facets to the answer to this question. To look at them is to look at a company that has a legendary reputation for skirting catastrophic failure before finally realizing expectations.
Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk unveiled solar roof tiles at a residential movie set at Universal Studios, the one used for Desperate Housewives. Tesla hosted the vent just prior to their merger with SolarCity.
One writer states that the intent was to generate approval of Musk’s acquisition of the leading solar panel installer at the time. The fact that Solar City was founded by his cousins and partly owned by him has generated much controversy.
During the event, he claimed that the houses on the lot had been retrofitted with solar roof tiles and that were transitioning power from the roofs to the Powerwall battery inside. In reality, the solar tiles were non-functioning demos and not actual functional tiles.
Why the subterfuge?
According to Fast Company, the idea of Tesla’s roof tiles springs from an earlier prototype of a solar roof developed by entrepreneur Jack West. His company, Zep Solar, functioned as an R&D department for Solar City, and in 2015 they started developing the idea of a metal solar roof.
They showed it to Musk in the late summer of 2016, who disliked the aesthetics. In an astoundingly short amount of time, Tesla, Solar City, and 3M developed the demo solar tiles that were unveiled in October of that year.
Around May of 2017, Tesla opened up for pre-orders of solar roof tiles offering two styles, smooth and textured, and claiming two more would be available in coming months. Musk also claimed that deliveries of solar roofs would start that year in the United States and the following year, 2018, in the UK.
However, design issues plagued the rollout of the tiles, and the company set about developing new versions. Version 2 of the tiles saw limited production at the company’s manufacturing site in Buffalo, New York.
According to Musk, the Version 2 tiles needed work even after arriving at the homes, and he compared their installation to finishing the construction of an aircraft on the runway. So Tesla developed Version 3 of the tiles.
All this was going on while Tesla’s existing solar program that it had acquired from Solar City was sharply declining. During the second quarter of 2019, Tesla sold a mere tenth of the panels that Solar City had sold during its heyday.
Until 2019, Tesla had a goal of handling all the installs of the solar roofs in-house. That meant that while the product itself was undergoing design problems, the rollout was further delayed because Tesla had to create a new division of its company dedicated to roofing and to competing with contractors who had been doing roofing for years.
Then in 2019, Musk revealed that he was open to working with roofing companies outside of his organization by creating a certified installer program. By April of that year, Tesla had installed roofs in just 31 homes in California. In October of 2019, Musk said Tesla’s goal was to install 1,000 roofs per week over the following months.
As one website points out, a roofing contractor who works for Tesla is going to have to pay mind not only to structural needs but waterproofing and electrical requirements. It’s hard to imagine a contractor wanting to diversify into a dicey market when there is already plenty of normal roofing work available.
Bigger Fish to Fry
During this time, Tesla had other problems in the form of the Model 3 electric car.
In 2018, Model 3 cars were coming off the factory line with a lot of defects. Some had chipped paint and misaligned panels, and a few had mechanical trouble. A survey carried out by Bloomberg found that defects were at their highest in the third quarter of 2018, with 80 out of every 100 cars having problems.
In November of 2019, Consumer Reports removed its recommendation of the car, citing that it had reliability issues with members of the magazine who owned the car.
As a result, Tesla made a full-scale effort to redeem the Model 3 electric car. In October of 2019, Musk said that the company reassigned Tesla Energy engineering to work on the car. They also redirected production lines of cells that were supposed to be for Powerwall and Powerpack batteries to the car because the car lacked power cells.
Do Solar Roof Tiles Even Work?
All this said, there have been limited installations of solar roofs in the US and some positive feedback.
Business Insider spoke to the pleased southern California resident, David Balenciaga, who said that he could run his 3,000 square foot home with only his solar roof. Having a Tesla Model X SUV and three Powerwalls makes Balenciaga something of a model Tesla customer, Elon Musk’s man of the future.
Another homeowner, Kyle Field, had a solar roof of Version 2 tiles installed on his new home after he had lost his previous home to a fire in 2017.
Writing for CleanTechnica, he estimates that the solar roof will save him $53,000 over 25 years. The system produces as it should without any involvement from the homeowner and typically fills up two Tesla Powerwall batteries by noon.
But he also reports that the version two tiles are weak when they are cut or put under pressure. Walking on them feels like it does to walk on a Spanish tile roof. This could be a problem if a workman needs to access the roof, and as Field notes, you can’t just download the Version 3 tiles.
Will Tesla’s Solar Roof Ever Be Available in the UK?
While UK residents await the coming of Tesla’s solar roof (perhaps with a dubiously lifted eyebrow), one interesting recent event is worth taking note of.
Just in October of 2020, Tesla released its Energy Plan in the UK, offering the lowest flat rate of any energy provider in Britain. With the Tesla Energy Plan, you can get an all-day/every-day import and export rate of 8p/kWh if you own a Tesla vehicle, and 11p if you don’t.
The reason why this is worth noting is that the plan specifies that it works with the company’s Powerwall battery, solar panels, and solar roof products. Now I ask you, would Tesla create a plan to work with something that will never make it to the UK?
Unfortunately, we have to look scarcity in the face and say that, in spite of promises to the contrary, Tesla has not made the solar roof available in the UK, and a date for shipping is not forthcoming.
It’s been a long, convoluted trip since the first unveiling of the solar roof back in 2016. The CEO that seems hell-bent on shifting paradigms has tried to start something new, again.
To his credit, Musk is ambitious for valuable and important changes. Renewable energy should be the expectation of the future, and if solar can be made both clean and beautiful, then more power to him.
But as Musk himself has admitted, it’s been a hard row to hoe and it doesn’t seem likely that all of Tesla’s problems are over.
Nevertheless, the UK does have an encouraging sign in the revealing just this last October of Tesla’s Energy Plan. With low prices and the possibility of integrating with all of Tesla’s products (including the solar roof), it may not be too long before roof tiles in four styles will be shipping across the pond.