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3 November 2016

Tesla unveils its Solar Roof, still facing SolarCity acquisition uncertainty

Tesla and SolarCity, the solar panel specialist it is in the midst of acquiring, have unveiled the Solar Roof, aiming to quieten naysayers that have disparaged the technology over the past few months. While the SolarCity acquisition still has many vocal skeptics, the roof technology brings Tesla a step closer to completing its fairly radical corporate transitions.

The new product is essentially a roofing tile that contains a solar panel, which can be used to generate electricity to be stored in one of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries – a Home Energy Management System (HEMS). A chief objective of the Solar Roof is to be price-competitive with the cost of replacing a roof, and be much more aesthetically pleasing than previous solar panel implementations.

In the presentation, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that the roof aims to be cheaper, better insulating, and longer lasting than current roofs. The claim on cost appears to be cashed against the comparative cost of buying all of the electricity that the roof stands to generate for the consumer, so it appears that the upfront cost of the roof is going to be rather steep.

The tiles are made from a type of textured glass, which sounds durable enough but doesn’t have anything in the way of performance benchmarking for us to peruse. From the promotional materials at least, the new tech does look rather nice on the eye, but that a subjective matter of taste and not a verifiable performance indicator.

Admittedly, the grand unveiling followed the industry trend of being very scant on pricing information and release dates. There will be a number of colors, to match different styles of houses, but the tiling is aiming to be as inconspicuous as possible. Assuming that the roof follows the lease-model used in many solar installations, that high upfront cost could be mitigated, but this new roof is lining up to look like an expensive purchase – but hopefully with nice profit margins.

Some 5m roofs are replaced each year in the US, according to SolarCity at least, and while those replacing roofs lost to extreme weather are unlikely candidates for adoption, that looks like a lot of volume to poach a percentage of. However, roofs are big and conservative purchases, so it will likely be a tricky sales process for Tesla Energy.

The new $5,500 Powerwall can store 14kWh of electricity, with a peak discharge of 7kW and a continuous discharge of 5kW. With its modular design, the system can be expanded to suit larger homes and buildings, and the doubling of the energy density of its predecessor is an encouraging sign for Tesla’s Gigafactory battery manufacturing plant.

The new Powerwall design has also incorporated an integrated inverter, which will help lower the price of the unit, and counters the valid criticisms of the original unit that still required additional hardware, as well as installation. This addition wasn’t particularly clear in the announcement.

The new utility-focused Powerpack batteries are already being used in two grid-scale projects in the US, with Southern California Edison’s 80MWh Mira Loma project, and the smaller 52MWh solar+storage installation with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. A new inverter was also announced, which Tesla claims allows it to provide previously impossible price points in the utility industry. An announcement added that some 300MWh of Tesla batteries have been deployed across 18 countries.

If it can pull the merger off and begin its shipments, Tesla will have completed a rather extraordinary transition from upstart sports car maker to what is effectively a service provider – that integrates your car and home, and potentially lays the groundwork to manage a great deal of your energy consumption.

However, SolarCity shareholders have still to hold the vote to approve the merger, which would see the largest solar installer in the US rebranded to Tesla Energy. Facts and figures in the launch might have helped reassured these voters, which are also somewhat reeling from the news that the SolarCity appears to be abandoning its in-house solar panel production and bringing in Panasonic. Questions about the claimed $150m in synergies remain.