To Make Solar Roofing Viable, Tesla Aesthetics Will Be Key

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Elon Musk is proposing adding building-integrated solar roofs to his arsenal of sustainable home energy appliances. Instead of an “aftermarket” attachment to an existing roof, like a solar array is today, he suggests actually making the roofing material itself generate solar power.

“It’s not something on the roof — it is the roof,” Musk said, during a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The general concept is not new. BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics) integrates solar technology as a roofing, window, or wall replacement product (or partial replacement product), rather than adding separate solar panels on top of the roof.

Leadership from Musk’s company Tesla this month agreed to buy SolarCity, which was founded by his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive. SolarCity, like the solar finance pioneer Sunrun, popularized the third-party owner (TPO) model, which enabled $0-down solar for homeowners and accounted for 75% of all home solar financed in its early years.

If shareholders agree to the purchase — which they might not do, because SolarCity lost $123 million in the first quarter after losing a battle in the ongoing net metering war in Nevada — Musk then envisions Tesla as a company that is a fully integrated home energy company.

Under Musk’s proposal, Tesla would not only supply the solar roof to capture the solar energy to fuel the Tesla in the garage, but would also store surplus solar energy in a Tesla Powerwall battery for when the customer comes home from work at night and charges her/his Tesla.

Solar roofing + solar storage in the garage + a solar-powered Tesla EV would be a real workaround for the risk of lower net metering rates.

Even though SolarCity lost money as a result of the recent Nevada ruling, shareholders would be smart to look at the big picture and see that Musk’s home energy self-sufficiency is the solution. (Of course, the economics of self sufficiency would be subject at least in part to what cost utilities and state PUCs would impose on those who flee the grid almost entirely).

Could Tesla do for BIPV what it did for the battery?

BIPV shingles and other solar roofing have failed to gain traction in the market since their introduction, partly because of the ugliness of most of the BIPV offerings on the market.

But it is a great and simple concept, and if anyone can make a great and simple concept hip and gorgeous, it is Elon Musk.

Look at what he did for the battery, that most humble and ugly of energy necessities. He sees the same transformational potential for solar roofs.

“This is a really fundamental part of having a differentiated product, where you’ll have a stunning, beautiful roof that’s a solar roof,” Musk said on the conference call.

Musk plans to produce the new solar roof at the Buffalo (New York) plant, using technology from Silevo, which SolarCity bought in 2014.

He sees the market as including people whose roofs need replaced soon. (As well as the sizable number of homeowners who won’t go solar only because they think the aesthetics are ugly. Just attaching objects to a roof in itself is unacceptable to them.)

Musk’s proposal reminded me of Soltecture

With solar roofing that epitomized the elegant, sleek, and shiny Tesla brand, Soltecture (as in solar + architecture) has left its website up, but it is no longer in business. It was among the large and apparently solid German thin-film companies that collapsed under the pressure of competition from cheap silicon solar panels from China in the industry bloodbath of 2011–2013.

With architecturally appealing CIGS-based BIPV modules, and with 50 high-wage German engineers laboring away on high-tech improvements, Soltecture seemed like the sort of serious and durable big German company that remains viable for half a century or more.

When I first spoke to CEO Nikolaus Meyer in 2013, Soltecture’s engineering team was still breaking efficiency records for CIGS-based solar panels — let alone the then much less efficient solar roofing. This was even as it was entering bankruptcy proceedings.

When we talked, it appeared that thin film was utterly doomed by the cheaper Chinese silicon panels that had flooded the market, but Meyer was prescient about where thin film would hold its own.

A prediction regarding thin film

Meyer was convinced that, when the industry settles out, it will be precisely the high-tech centers like Germany that would be central to the thin-film solar technology market, even with its high wage workforce. (Silicon Valley would fit that description particularly well.)

“CIGS thin film production is still rather challenging, technically. You need very well educated engineers to run such production,” said Meyer.

“So I actually think that a country like Germany or other highly industrialized countries have an advantage in thin film production, and should see thin film manufacturing as a chance to differentiate from the market.”

“Sooner or later, the market will be fairer again, making it possible to run a competitive business, not only in China,” he told me.

“Crystalline PV technology is very mature, the knowledge is available almost everywhere, and the machinery is very available so you don’t need so much knowledge and experience to run it successfully.”

Meyer’s prediction in 2013 has turned out to be accurate. Pretty much the only company left standing from all the once-so-promising thin-film-based technologies is a US-based company. First Solar makes and develops its projects with cadmium-telluride (CdTe) panels that consistently break efficiency records through improvements made in the lab in Arizona.

Not that US firms weren’t also among the many left on the global thin film battlefield between 2010 and 2014. Plenty of US thin film pioneers died there. Solyndra was one of the most innovative of the CIGS-based thin film casualties. Mia Sole was bought by Hanergy and then Hanergy folded. CIGS-based Nanosolar was bankrupt by 2013.

BIPV failed because it was ugly

BIPV firms were included in the carnage of those years. Applied Solar, Flexcell, Konarka, Odersun, Scheuten Solar, Pythagoras Solar, and even BP also tried and failed with solar roofing, along with Soltecture. When they were around, most companies making BIPV were not able to capture the potential market of homeowners who object to adding solar panels to a roof.

Most BIPV tried to disguise the solar as roofing shingles, as if trying to not offend the Neighborhood Housing Association. But nobody would call the bland results a Tesla look.

Giant corporations that have discontinued their rather humdrum solar shingles divisions include most recently Dow Chemical.

So, yes, Musk is taking on a tall order. But remember how dull batteries were before Musk revealed why they are desirable with the astonishing Powerwall. I predict that he can do something similar with solar roofing. There definitely is a segment of the market that is turned off by the visual aspect of standard, busy-looking, aluminum-framed solar panels perched atop a roof.

Silevo, the solar panel maker that SolarCity bought, has pretty standard panel aesthetics, so it is hard to see how Musk can give them that Tesla look.

But Soltecture’s solar cladding is already Tesla-like in its elegance. And with thin-film solar technology, it is ideally suited to US manufacturing.

Meyer didn’t respond to my email, and I see that he is now running a geothermal heating firm, Geo-en, after 10 years of trying to get this gorgeous solar cladding to market.

Whether anyone will revive Soltecture in the future is anyone’s guess. But Tesla would seem to be the ideal firm to do it, if it doesn’t have everything it needs already.

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