Tesla’s Musk eyes solar shingles as next venture

New products will need to overcome problems of aesthetics and efficiency that have plagued past entrants into this field. 

September 01, 2016 |

CertainTeed's Apollo II solar shingles (pictured) are among the few survivors in a market that's seen its share of failed launches. Undautned, new entrants Solar City and the startup Sunflare are trying to make inroads with new solar roofing.  Image: CertainTeed

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has tried his hand at space travel, producing electric cars, and churning out home and commercial battery packs. His auto-making company, Tesla, this month paid $2.6 billion in cash to purchase Solar City, the struggling photovoltaic panel supplier that’s run by Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive.

And now Solar City plans to develop stylish solar panels that would take the place of roof tiles on top of residential homes. These tiles would be manufactured at Solar City’s gigafactory in Buffalo, N.Y., using technology from Silevo, which Solar City acquired two years ago.

Ever the optimist, Musk is positioning his solar shingles as a preferable alternative to tiles or asphalt shingles that are typically used to replace roofs on more than five million houses annually. Solar City says it plans to have two solar products ready by the end of this year, one for existing roofs and the other that will be integrated within a roof, according to trendintech.com. Other details, like prices and production schedules, were not disclosed.

Building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) technology is not new. Photovoltaic shingles first came onto the market in 2005. They even merited a mention in Scientific American, which singled out Dow Chemical’s Powerhouse and CertainTeed’s Apollo brands, both of which introduced in 2011, as the leading solar shingles at the time.

CertainTeed’s Apollo II solar shingle is still available. GAF, according to its website, offers a solar roofing system in the six states that provide homeowner tax subsidies for installation. And last spring a Los Angeles startup called Sunflare came out with solar roofing product that dispenses with a glass substrate, and therefore are 65% lighter than solar panels. Sunflare’s product, which will soon be in production, is unique in that it is flexible enough to wrap around curves, can be cut to fit any roofline, and can be taped to an existing roof.

But Dow discontinued its PowerHouse Solar System 2.0 on July 28, and made its last shipments earlier this month. This sector, in fact, is littered with producers—including Applied Solar, Flexcell, Germany’s Soltecture, and even the oil giant BP—whose BIPV products have come and gone.

The problem that solar shingles have yet to overcome is that they generate electricity less efficiently than solar PV arrays. The shingles weren’t very attractive, either.

Tesla watchers point out that if Musk can make the design of ordinary batteries elegant, why not solar panels? And BIPV technology fits into his larger strategy for Tesla to become a fully integrated home energy company that makes solar roofs that capture energy for the house as well as for the home battery storage system that Tesla’s electric cars plug into for power.

Musk has also discussed installing solar roofs on the tops of Tesla’s cars. 

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