In short: After two years of delays, Elon Musk might finally be getting Tesla’s act together with the production of the company’s much-hyped V3 Solar Roof. With falling solar panel sales and a lot of talk without the walk, it’s reasonable for a consumer to have concerns about buying Tesla’s solar products. We can only hope that the solar roof is actually happening now, soon, maybe.
What is Tesla’s V3 Solar Roof and why is it special?
Tesla’s V3 Solar Roof boasts a sleek, “invisible” design from street level due to the tiles’ black, smooth design. The tempered glass tiles are integrated with an included Powerwall battery for energy storage and backup, and come with the industry’s highest ratings for hail, wind, and fire resistance.
Perhaps the most compelling selling point is the warranty. The V3 Solar Roof comes with what Tesla calls an “infinite warranty,” which means “the lifetime of your house, or infinity, whichever comes first.” Most solar system warranties last 25-30 years; last time we checked infinity is longer than that.
You can pre-order the tiles with your credit card and a $1,000 deposit, but some of the first customers to throw down their cash back in 2017 still haven’t had their tiles installed. We’ll dive more into that in a bit.
What’s the price?
One concern we solar nerds, and consumers, have is the inconsistent answers on pricing. In the solar industry, it’s standard practice to quote a dollar amount per watt without any incentives or credits applied, such as the 30% federal tax credit. Doing this gives you, the customer, a complete picture on the actual cost of going solar.
Tax rebates and incentives can vary wildly depending on where you live, so it’s best to take those out until you’re further along in the solar buying process.
In the context of tile pricing, Tesla claims the tiles will cost $21.85 per square foot, assuming 35% of the roof’s tiles are generating solar. Though the tiles look identical for aesthetic purposes, not every tile on the solar roof turns sunlight into electricity. But the price is one lump sum for all solar and non-solar tiles.
The price includes all installation costs with ideal conditions, but that’s with the 30% tax credit applied, and it comes with some major discrepancies.
This isn’t made clear in the marketing language, and the tax credit requires work on the customer’s end. Compare that to CertainTeed Apollo II roof shingles, possibly Tesla’s strongest competitor, which are between $11.45 – $13.10 per square foot, but whose tiles, unlike Tesla’s, don’t cover the whole roof.
That price also assumes ideal conditions for Tesla’s installation process. Things like older roofs with clay, metal, and slate tiles add to the costs, as do roofs that are inclined more than 37 degrees and those with several planes/levels. Tesla also doesn’t make this clear.
The complicated timeline of Tesla’s Solar Roof
In 2016, Tesla bought leading solar panel installer SolarCity for $2.6 billion, which was conveniently founded by Elon Musk’s cousins. A media outpouring ensued, mostly touting Musk’s forward-thinking brashness. That August, Tesla announced its Solar Roof. In November, the deal with SolarCity was finalized.
In May 2017, Tesla began taking pre-orders (remember that $1,000 deposit?) for its solar roof, with installations slated to begin soon after.
Musk announced in August 2017 that he and other Tesla executives had installed solar roofs on their personal homes. However, only an estimated 10-15 customers who had put down that hefty deposit had gotten their solar roof installed. When questioned about the low number, Musk clarified that “hundreds” of customers had their systems installed.
Tesla would follow that with a statement to Reuters that Musk really meant to say that number included partial installs and scheduled installs. So no, hundreds of systems were not installed!
This delay and confusing language caused complications with panel supplier Panasonic; Musk blamed the delays on assembly line and ‘aesthetic’ problems at Tesla’s factory in Buffalo, New York.
Fast forward to September 2018, and the Solar Roof still wasn’t being installed as widely as promised. On an investor call, Musk stated that more time was needed to make sure the details were “just right,” mostly centered around making sure the tiles last for at least 30 years. As of September 2018, only 12 systems were connected to the grid, all in Northern California.
In February 2019, Reuters again enlightened us with a report that only 21 systems were installed, according to California state data. That same report claims that a significant amount of the cells produced at the Buffalo factory were going to foreign buyers, despite that factory being tasked with producing tiles for solar roofs.
Then, in July 2019, some promising news finally arrived. Upon reporting Tesla’s earnings, we learned that Tesla has acquired a permit to test solar products at their Fremont, California factory, and have shifted their focus to improving slumping solar sales. Musk also sent this very generic — albeit helpful — tweet:
We can only hope that mass production and fulfillment of orders (especially the early adopters from 2017) are actually happening this time. Though manufacturing delays are no stranger to Tesla, we respect the immense work that goes into producing a cutting-edge technology, reliably and on a mass scale.
Declining solar sales
In Tesla’s second-quarter earnings call in July, the company reported only 29 megawatts (MW) of solar installations in 2019, down a whopping 65% from last year. To put that into context, Tesla’s competitors reported the following:
- Sunrun: 86 MW
- Vivint: 46 MW
- SunPower: 52 MW
Why such a striking decline? Well, all those delays matter, for one. Today’s consumers are smart, especially with investments as large as solar panels. Tesla has surely lost some trust with its base, even electric vehicle (EV) buyers. Companies like Sunrun, Vivint, and SunPower are actually delivering on their promises.
Other factors could be that Tesla’s media strategy has centered mostly around EV sales, rendering solar tiles a virtual afterthought, and a possible waning of Tesla’s novelty (Tesla fatigue?).
Surely Tesla has seen these sales slumps brewing for a while (SolarCity was the largest solar installer in the US before Tesla bought it, after all). Over the last few months the company has made several structural changes, including:
- Laying off door-to-door salespeople for solar products
- Shifting solar sales to online-only
- For salespeople who do stay on, selling the Tesla “ecosystem” instead of just solar products
- Reducing the cost of solar products
- Employing clever PR-speak like “streamlined”
Surprisingly, data has shown that customers respond better to door-to-door sales than to online-only when it comes to solar sales, and the declining sales show that Tesla’s strategy isn’t working.
As one of the most iconic brands in the world, Tesla can rapidly bring us closer to a solar future just by making its existence in the space a leading priority, not a supplement to its EV business. It can further cement its place as a technological and environmental pioneer by actually delivering on its promises — better yet, by saying less and delivering more.
We hope that the combination of unfulfilled promises and disappointing solar energy earnings will force Tesla to follow through on the very public tweets shot out from its mercurial leader and increase the speed of installs for the early adopters from 2017 – they were promised a solar roof, and they’re still waiting.
Last modified: November 8, 2019