It’s easy to be inspired by a visioneer like Elon Musk. He’s been a master of executing on cool technology and bringing the future to your door in remarkable, surprising ways.
If you’ve been considering installing solar power for your home and have done a little browsing around on the Tesla website, you may have noticed that there is a surprising lack of detail regarding who actually produces Tesla solar panels.
In this article, we explain why that is and reveal what’s going on.
Tesla brands solar panel aesthetics instead of solar panels
Tesla’s marketing strategy regarding its automobiles is not much different than its approach to solar panels. Consider the Tesla 3 above. It is sleek, aerodynamic, cool, exclusive, and sexy
Now, take a look at how Tesla positions the look and feel of their solar installations above.
They are meant to be sleek, with no visible grids between solar cells. Each installation features concealed edges, which make the solar installation appear more like a natural extension of your roof. Their home solar arrays also have a low profile, ensuring the panels aren’t noticeable protrusions from the street.
In many ways, the look and feel of the Tesla electric car is meant to reflect the feel you get from your solar installation.
There is an advantage to doing this, since the demographic niche Tesla is appealing to probably doesn’t care exactly how these panels get made or who makes them, it’s that they are going into a Tesla solar installation on their roof.
Each solar installation looks like a sexy sleek electric car, and produces a strong level of watts at high efficiency.
As long as those boxes get checked, the Tesla sales team figures you should not really care about the gritty details and they can preserve the flexibility they desire to source panels and cells from wherever makes the most sense at the moment.
But chances are, you are reading this because you actually do care who makes Tesla’s solar modules. So, we did the digging for you to help you understand what is going on and how Tesla sources its solar panels.
Some background on Tesla
Once upon a time, Elon Musk’s cousin, Lyndon Rive was the CEO of a company called SolarCity. You have probably heard of it, as Elon Musk served as SolarCity’s chairman of the board of directors.
SolarCity was once the largest residential solar manufacturer and installer in the United States, employing over 15,000 people and nearly netting half of the entire residential solar energy market in the United States by 2015.
However, they used up more investor cash than they were generating from new sales, and by 2016 they were nearing bankruptcy brought on by a potential default on an investment bond.
Elon Musk knew this and made a pitch for his company, Tesla, to swoop in and save the distressed business. He billed the merger as a “match made in heaven” to shareholders.
His vision of combining his relatively new electric car company with a well vertically integrated residential solar business wouldn’t be denied.
The Tesla purchase of SolarCity was later finalized, though controversial due to a lot of conflicts of interests between the two companies and family members present on both SolarCity and Tesla’s board.
While SolarCity had gotten into manufacturing their own panels, they also historically used whatever panels they could get from overseas to meet client demand.
The Tesla Panasonic GigaFactory in Buffalo New York
A little later that same year of 2016, Tesla announced a new partnership with Panasonic to produce solar cells collaboratively, and that Tesla would commit to buying cells from them over the long term.
This announcement was confusing, as it seemed to imply Tesla would produce its own panels out of this factory. However, that isn’t the case.
Tesla had planned to use the factory to source cells to go into its new solar roof tiles and work on developing other solar products.
Solar roof tiles are made to look like the tiles in your roof and have the same level of durability as tempered glass.
While that product is certainly cool to look at, the Tesla sales team is having a difficult time bringing the product to market.
Maybe it’s because the aesthetics make it look like something is wrong in a rectangle of your roof where the tiles are installed.
Unless you decide to cover your the entire roof in this product (an expensive proposition), in our opinion the installations don’t look all that great.
Indeed, at the end of 2019, just a few hundred of these installations had been completed across the country.
According to a recent Reuters report, the vast majority of cells being produced at the Gigafactory in Buffalo are being shipped overseas.
Due to a loophole in Donald Trump’s tariffs on solar equipment, the American made cells can be sold and exported to Asian solar module manufacturers, assembled into solar panel modules, then shipped back to the United States and avoid being charged the tariff.
That’s because the cells were originally made in New York.
So, the majority of Panasonic solar cells produced in the plant are making that journey across the seas twice.
As of today, Tesla and Panasonic are working separately out of the same factory space in the Buffalo Gigafactory on their own products. Tesla continues to research its solar roof line, and Panasonic is manufacturing solar cells and modules for other customers and its own brand.
If Tesla is not producing its own solar panels, who is?
Since there are no clear details on the brand of Tesla solar panels or panel manufacturers listed on the Tesla website or in proposals given to customers after they make an inquiry, it took some persistence to find clues to the answer.
A recent Tesla customer requested further details on the module product specifications he received on his quote. He was surprised to see they were made by a company called Q CELLS. After three attempts calling in, he was able to request the solar panels made by Panasonic he was expecting in the first place.
Given that Tesla is not purchasing its panels from Panasonic, this result isn’t surprising. We would imagine Tesla sources product from wherever it can at bulk and then packages it together to appear like you’re still getting a sleek sedan on your roof.
Does it matter who makes your solar panels anymore?
Solar panels have reached a level of technological maturity where there is not a compelling amount of difference in efficiency, quality or performance across major brands, including Q CELLS.
For example, the top quality panels on the market from Sunpower are 22% efficient. The lowest tier Chinese producers are at 17%. Panasonic panels which come out of the Gigafactory are around 19%.
There are some tradeoffs to aesthetics, as you’re going to have to give up the sexy, sleek, black looks of your panels to reap the highest levels of electricity generation from a Sunpower panel.
Those black backsheets unnecessarily heat up your panels at the cost of efficiency to keep them looking pure and black.
The most important things you should be focusing on are the installed cost per watt of your solar system, the quality of your installer and the strength of your warranty over the life of your installation. Most panels are warrantied to produce through 25 years.
It’s important to note here, that while the Tesla installs sure look sexy, the installer doesn’t rate nearly as highly as others in terms of customer experience. That may be because they are still transitioning from the way SolarCity used to operate.
While SolarCity sold more solar than any other installer for years, they were rated the lowest in customer satisfaction on an annual basis.
Last modified: March 24, 2020