EVER THE SHOWMAN, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to the stage at Universal Studios in LA this evening promising to make solar sexy. To that end, he unveiled a range of textured glass tiles with integrated solar cells that are nearly indistinguishable from conventional tiling, along with a sleek update to the company’s energy-storing Powerwall.
A couple hundred invited guests, mostly Tesla owners, ooh-ed and ahh-ed as Musk revealed that a row of suburban American houses on Wisteria Lane—the old set of Desperate Housewives—were all, in fact, topped with solar roofs. Each house’s old roofing material had been stripped away, and replaced with one of four new styles of solar tile. From the street, it was virtually impossible to tell; the roofs retained a variety of traditional looks, from textured slate shingle to terra cotta tile.
Musk said the secret to the tiles’ appearance is a special coating that becomes more or less see-through depending on your viewing angle. He described it as a series of micro louvers that work like a privacy screen on a laptop, and said the company is working with 3M on the tech. The effect is dramatic in person. From shallow angles, the tiles appear nontransparent. But as your viewing angle approaches 90 degrees, the underlying solar cell becomes more and more visible. The result is a tile that permits the passage of sunlight from overhead, but still looks opaque to anyone at ground level.
For those concerned about the strength of a roof made of glass tiles, Musk showed the audience footage of a drop test to demonstrate that the glass was tougher than materials like clay and slate. “It’s never going to wear out, it’s made of quartz, it has a quasi-infinite lifetime,” Musk said.
“We need to make solar panels as appealing as electric cars have become,” Musk said. He wants to make every roof solar, by making it irresistible. “It needs to be beautiful, affordable, and seamlessly integrated. If all of those things are true, why would you go any other direction?” Why, indeed. Musk makes a strong case, but it’s one he only partially supported this evening; Tesla’s panels certainly look good, but Musk provided no details on pricing, availability, or the installation process.
A Better Battery
The solar roofs are designed to be used with the Tesla Powerwall. Version 2.0, which Musk also unveiled today, is a bright white rectangle, and flatter than the first version, which Tesla released in April 2015. It will cost $5,500 for 14kWh of storage and 7kWh peak power draw. That’s enough to power a four bedroom house for a day.
The new roof and battery are both part of Musk’s master plan to save the world through sustainable energy. Yes, you could go out and buy a solar system now, but the large, purple-black sheets of glass don’t exactly blend in on a period house—or most other properties, for that matter. Beyond a certain grudging respect for your green credentials (and lower utility bills), they don’t make the neighbors jealous in the way a Tesla Model S in the driveway does.
And that’s a shame. Solar power is an elegant solution for sustainable energy generation. Once the panels are installed, they make electricity whenever the sun shines, with no moving parts, no noise, and, beyond the occasional cleaning, very little maintenance. The problem is, when the sun isn’t shining, like in the evenings when electricity demand peaks, they’re useless. Hence Tesla’s plan to integrate pretty panels with a battery. Generate and store by day, light up your house by night, and brag about it when you feel so inclined. (“If you install our solar roof on your house, you’re going to want to call your neighbors over and say ‘check out the sweet roof!’” says Musk.)
“In order to make his vision move forward, Musk is using design with a big D,” says Andy Ogden, Chair of the Industrial Design Department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. “He’s thinking about an overall strategy, in how these things interact and support each other, so there’s some synergy.”
Musk wants you to be able to walk into a Tesla store and order solar panels, a battery, and an electric car to use that energy while you’re at it. Boom. One (probably very large) payment to one company, and you’re doing your bit to mitigate climate change.
The plan could work, says Ogden. “If he can make it easier, and less expensive and more attractive for roofs to be solar, then that will drive the uptake of battery systems.”
Tesla is partnering with SolarCity on the new products, and is hoping to convince shareholders of both companies that they make a good pair. Musk announced in June that his electric car company plans to merge with the solar panel installer, of which he is already majority shareholder, and which his cousins run. Shareholders will vote on the plan on November 17th. Perhaps Tesla’s pretty new solar tiles will influence their decision.
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