Elon Musk's Vision for a Solar Roof: A Work of Art...or Just Work?

Elon Musk, the engineer and inventor who co-founded Tesla Motors, announced the other day that he has a new vision: a solar roof. Not just solar panels affixed to your roof after the fact, but an entire roof of dedicated — and beautiful — solar gathering material.

His vision includes creating this product with the idea that it would replace standard roofing material and ultimately become a core component of rooftops everywhere. The answer to the first question most people have — would this be expensive? — is a resounding yes, and probably a lot more so. Although it’s likely that his company would factor in the cost of power production over the lifetime of the roof, which would (hopefully) even out the cost over time.

Here are my thoughts on the idea of solar roofing.

The negative:

  • That is gonna be expensive!
  • Who is going to install that? Roofers (the good ones) are super-humans. Every day they climb a ladder up to their “office” which is at a 45-degree angle to the ground! Then they rip out 13,500 nails (6 nails per shingle, 30 shingles per bundle, 3 bundles per square, average of 25 squares) and 8,000 lbs of material, then install the same amount. Are we going to have to train them to also be electricians? That would significantly increase your labor costs.
  • If it leaks, that’s going to be the most expensive warranty call ever!
  • I hope he partners with one of the major shingle manufacturers. Roofing isn't really rocket science, but if something breaks, you can't just take it to a shop. The major manufacturers have tons of experience developing products that will withstand the elements, can be installed relatively easily, and can be repaired relatively easily. Musk will need to incorporate those elements.
  • Climates may make this impractical in certain regions. Los Angeles has much different weather than St. Louis, so depending on the efficiency of the panels, that drastically skews the ROI.
  • Insurance companies may be pretty wary. It's "new," so it might cost a lot to insure (they have no claims data to assess the risk) and the roof is already one of the most expensive things to insure on the home — it takes the majority of all the weather and is the only reason why you don't have a waterfall in your family room.

The positive:

  • Don’t get me wrong — it’s a great idea! The roof (obviously) gets the most sun and, other than aesthetics, it is really wasted space. So if you can do something with that space, while preserving a nice aesthetic appeal, that would be great.
  • Any investment made in product development in our industry is great in my mind! Even if this product fails, you know it will have created a conversation in the board rooms of all of the manufacturers that he could potentially take revenue from. I mean, look what he’s done with the auto industry! All the big auto companies had the attitude of "eh, he's not gonna be able to do it," but now they’re all struggling to create models that compete with Tesla.

I have a lot of respect for Elon Musk. You can tell he has a lot of passion for what he does and the ideas he pursues. He inspires people to dream big! Worst case scenario, he is going to spark conversations and maybe increase R&D. Best case scenario, we can turn our air conditioning a little cooler on these 100-degree days and not feel guilty about it!