NEWS: Assessing the Anti-Hype Around Elon Musk’s Solar Roof

Posted by Lexie Briggs on Nov 4, 2016 12:57:53 PM


This week, on the former set of “Desperate Housewives,” Elon Musk revealed a new Tesla product. This time around he announced the Tesla version of solar installations that look just like roofs. And, as they often do when Musk makes an announcement, both mainstream and industry news media paid attention and tried to contain their enthusiasm. In this week’s news roundup we’ll try to make sense of the Musk hype and the media’s extensive, if cool, reaction.

Even in advance of the announcement, Greentech Media’s Eric Wesoff was dumping cold water on Musk’s promise of integrated solar roofing materials for homes, running down the list of companies that had tried and failed to bring this alternative to rooftop panels to market. But this is Elon Musk we’re talking about.

In a 15-minute speech in the Universal Studios lot, Musk pointed at the roofs of the stylish houses surrounding the crowd. “The houses you see around you are all solar houses,” he said to the audience. “I don't know if you... did you know that? Did you notice?”

Probably nobody in that audience expected anything less, but they craned their necks and looked at the roofs of the surrounding houses, each a different style. The four different kinds of solar roof tiles on display included textured glass, which looks like a traditional shingled roof, 3-D printed panels in the style of a French slate roof (which Musk said is “one of the hardest to do”), a modern smooth glass tile that looks like a sleek, modern roof, and a curved tile that looks like a Tuscan clay roof. As the crowd looked around, a few folks yelled in the affirmative, “Yeah. Yeah!”

“The whole focus of Tesla was to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy,” Musk said in the announcement. He explained that, for Tesla, the solution was three-fold: solar, storage, and transportation, and that the entire system would need to be beautiful, affordable, and seamlessly integrated. The other announcement, that Tesla’s Powerwall 2.0 home storage system had doubled in capacity to bring it more in line with the average daily usage of a home in the U.S., spoke directly to that goal of integration. Powerpack 2, the utility-scale version, has also doubled its capacity over the previous model.

It was a typical bit of Musk theater, with the houses used as props in the most literal sense. Business Insider writes that Musk is “trying to make solar sexy,” and, after demonstrating the Tuscan clay-style solar panels, someone in the audience gives a wolf whistle. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a Florida installer of integrated solar roof systems for commercial properties who sniffed, “Integrated roofs are not particularly new,” and called the announcement, “a marketing ploy to try to increase sales.” (Sour grapes much?)

Plus, this is a very conveniently timed announcement, coming just as the shareholders of both SolarCity and Tesla are preparing to vote November 17 to decide whether the two companies will merge. (It’s actually worth noting that these solar panels are, at least for now, technically a SolarCity product, though they were developed in partnership with Tesla and are being advertised on the Tesla blog.)

Julia Pyper, writing for Greentech Media, claimed Musk didn’t “address any pressing questions,” writing that he “failed to address any of the serious, foundational challenges facing a car-company-turned-battery-and-solar-installer that wants to get a roof product to market.” Popular Science ran a piece entitled “5 Questions You Should Have About Elon Musk’s New Solar Roofs” (subhead: “It’s too soon to say whether they have a bright future”). The list includes things like performance, cost, leasing issues, and installation issues.

It might be too soon to claim that the future of the Tesla/SolarCity solar roof is bright, but it’s about time that the media recognized the method behind Musk’s seeming madness. After all, Elon Musk has done this exact thing before, twice. Both electric cars and residential-scale storage existed, but not as successful products, before Musk came around. But he has a business model that seems to be working: market the most advanced technology in a form that appeals to high-end early adopters, generate excitement, and allow that early revenue (and shareholder money) to fund the development of mass-market scale. In the meantime, other companies can work fill in gaps at lower price points and ultimately tip the scale in the direction of advanced energy (think Leaf, Volt, Bolt).

We saw this model early on with the Tesla Roadster, which had an initial base price of $109,000 and the Model S, which starts at $85,000 (but is no longer a rare sighting). We saw it again with the Tesla Powerwall, which skeptics warned just didn’t make financial sense. Musk’s response? “That doesn’t mean people won’t buy it.

Yes, there are some unanswered questions, but there’s also a video of a kettlebell being dropped on different roof tiles.

Why not watch that on loop while we’re waiting for answers? In the words of the singer whose song preceded the announcement, “Nothing better than forever, baby, we can have it all.”

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Topics: News Update