The Future is Here: Tesla’s Solar Roofs Could Be a Game Changer

Elon Musk has a new trick up his sleeve. 

Updated
Environment
3 min read
Elon Musk demonstrates some of his solar tiles. (Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Tesla Video)

This week Elon Musk announced a “new Tesla/Solar City solar roof with integrated Powerwall 2.0 battery and Tesla charger”. The roof to car loop creates an energy ecosystem that could attract many buyers but the true value of the innovation goes further. We take a look at the roof and why it’s sparked conversations around the globe:

What a solar house of the future could look like, fitted with an electric vehicle and all. (Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Tesla Video)
What a solar house of the future could look like, fitted with an electric vehicle and all. (Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Tesla Video)

Tesla Just “Closed the Loop”

Tesla’s vision for energy means that effectively, it is now possible to own a home where the roof generates energy, the integrated home battery stores it and then charges the electric car (of course, Tesla manufactures all three!). Essentially, you could generate electricity when the sun was shining and store it for use during the night and on cloudy days.

Storage tech poses a massive challenge for renewable energy and if Tesla’s experiment is successful, we could be taking a huge step forward in the deployment of renewable energy. In a way, this creates an integrated system that could enable greater energy independence, lower our carbon footprint and in places where these houses are connected to the grid, these roofs could even earn money from selling excess electricity into the grid.

There are different tiles customers can choose from. (Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Tesla Video)
There are different tiles customers can choose from. (Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Tesla Video)

Aesthetics and Performance: “Check Out the Sweet Roof”

Tesla’s made it clear that aesthetics are central to their vision. Musk promised that “you'll want to call your neighbours over and say ‘check out the sweet roof’” and the new roof has been described as “Power from above, beauty from the street”. Undoubtedly, the roofs look great and this is important since aesthetics can play a role in attracting sceptical buyers. A US scientist who’s worked extensively on renewables said that while performance, toughness and technical aspects were all important:

Ugly doesn’t sell in the building space. […] and you have to look cool […] to really get something adopted.

Visually and functionally, the roofs are similar to their regular counterparts with one major exception – the roofs are actually made up of textured glass tiles containing solar cells within them. The tiles have a layer of glass, a film and a solar cell, which converts sunlight to electricity. The films are a new innovation – they don’t just allow efficient energy conversion, but when viewed from the ground, they appear to be a different colour.

They come in four glass finishes – Slate, Smooth, Textured and Tuscan.

As per Tesla, the tiles will comply with all roofing standards and can withstand heavy weather, including hail. Even more interestingly, the roofs could incorporate heating elements, which would allow them to melt fallen snow.

Builders have options that look like existing tile options. (Photo Courtesy: Tesla)
Builders have options that look like existing tile options. (Photo Courtesy: Tesla)

To back up its claim about their roof tiles being tougher than regular tiles, the company released a video on Twitter:

Isn’t It Too Soon to Celebrate?

There’s some distance to go before the solar roofs arrive in the marketplace and there are several questions that are yet to be answered. For example, we don’t know how the roofs will be priced and about the available financing mechanisms for interested buyers. This is not a minor issue – previous attempts at building solar roofs have seen sky-high costs. Even apart from the cost, the real world performance of these roofs, the amount of power they can realistically generate and their vulnerability to regular wear and tear are all still open questions. Finally, while innovations like smart thermostats allow energy efficiency without really changing our behaviour, solar roofs require a massive supporting ecosystem spanning consumer attitudes, construction feasibility and government policies.

Perhaps, the most fascinating thing about Tesla’s new announcement is the vision of the future that it creates. At a time when climate change impacts have begun to make themselves felt, a reorientation from business as usual might be the only way forward.

(Shalini Iyengar is an environmental lawyer and Faculty, School of Environment, Law and Planning, at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology)

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