Catch the recent solar hype? Last month saw an amazing demonstration of new roof tile technologies unveiled by Tesla as a part of its assimilation of Solar City. The tiles were shown modeled on suburban-style buildings on a Hollywood movie set.
After the announcement, we’ve received a lot of questions as to how the Tesla roof tile announcements affect SolaBlock (especially in relation to our SolaTile product). Overall, we’re very pleased to see that Tesla is converging on the same vision as SolaBlock. This is an invaluable affirmation of our mission to see solar energy production expand as it takes on entirely new forms to suit customer needs. But Tesla’s product itself isn’t perfect – here’s why.
Where Tesla Falls Short:
In fact, the roof tiles demonstrated on the Hollywood buildings were not interconnected to the grid—or even to each other. Having developed patented technologies for interconnecting solar-clad wall systems, it’s our experience that the supreme technical challenge is the wiring design. This is especially acute with roof systems, where drilling a large number holes in a roof increases the likelihood of leaks, daisy-chaining long strings of tiles is not practical from an installer’s perspective, and interconnecting many tiles one-to-another in series creates the potential for voltage losses, corrosion losses, and hidden costs.
Secondly, the quartz glass material that Tesla is planning to use may not be ideal. It’s exceedingly expensive—think of the cost of hundreds of square feet of smartphone glass—and may be too easily broken, tempered glass can actually be shattered with a piece of ceramic the size of a pebble. It can also be broken with mild impact at the edge--with overlapping shingles exposing the edges of the glass, there are plenty of opportunities for this kind of breakage.
Third, the competitive position for Tesla is a challenge. Tesla is planning to compete head-to-head with conventional solar modules on roofs. With electricity a commodity, and conventional modules being sold on a commodity basis, Tesla is competing with the incumbent industry at its strength. Tesla adding value due to superior aesthetics can only buy advantage to a certain extent--the market will decide to what extent that is. The track record of previous solar roof tile manufacturers is spotty because of this inability to directly compete on a low-cost basis.
Fourth, who is going to install the tiles? Roofers are not qualified or permitted to perform electrical connections, and electricians are not going to readily install roof shingles. A new professional category of solar tile installers might be needed--and those newly-certified professionals may be spending considerable high-dollar hours putting up the roof systems.
Lastly, the performance of the roof as advertised is a concern. From the pictures, not a lot of surface area of each tile is devoted to solar generation—that means the higher up-front costs will need more years of electricity sales to pay back those costs. Tesla has addressed this, saying that the high cost of the roof can be made up in energy sales over the lifetime of the roof. But in so many words, Tesla is saying that lifetime energy sales from the roof will go up front to the manufacturer instead of to the customer. This eliminates a large part of the reason to install solar in the first place, energy savings!
But why SolaBlock?
Overall, we’re excited by the discussions that have arisen from the Tesla announcement. We believe that the arguments for Tesla point toward even greater success for SolaBlock. Regarding our concerns for Tesla, here are the five issues we outlined—and how we address them:
1. We’ve developed cost-effective and practical means of interconnecting our block and tile wall systems. This has been SolaBlock’s greatest design challenge—and greatest success.
2. Instead of quartz glass, we’re employing new high-technology polymers that can’t be broken, enabling more deployment where there’s risk of damage or vandalism.
3. Instead of competing with conventional solar industry on building roofs, we’re bringing solar development to facades and other vertical structures, where our suppliers are eager to join us in the exploitation of a new sales channel.
4. Instead of creating installation challenges on the construction site, we’ve designed–and re-designed—our products to be eminently suitable for conventional installation by the trades. Masons install block and tile in a normal manner, and electricians complete the installations using existing tools and skill sets.
5. Instead of requiring energy sales over the course of the product lifetime to pay back its high capital-cost to be competitive with solar alternatives, SolaBlock is already the least-cost alternative for solar production on facades. This means that energy sales revenues go right to the customer, greatly reducing customer energy costs and improving customer bottom-line.
So Tesla may have the hype, but they don’t have the product! Meanwhile, SolaBlock and SolaTile are poised to take the industry by storm, (or by sunlight and beautiful weather rather). Stay tuned!
-Patrick Quinlan, CEO
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