Skip to Content

Elon Musk’s Promise of “Solar Roofs” Has Echoes of a Rust Belt Failure

SolarCity’s chairman dropped hints that the company is planning a new product—but it’s been tried before.
August 10, 2016

As leader of two flashy green-tech companies, Elon Musk has a habit of doubling down on bold claims. And he played to form in SolarCity’s most recent earnings call, dropping an oh-by-the-way mention that the company will be adding “solar roofs” to its product lineup of rooftop solar panels.

As Musk said, those are two distinct things: SolarCity already sells solar panels that go on your roof. With solar roofs, as he says, “It’s not a thing on the roof; it is the roof.”

Another word for solar roofs is “solar shingles,” and it’s been tried before. In 2011, Dow Chemical launched its product, Powerhouse Solar, with the aim of adding a new offering to the residential solar market. It was highly touted at the time; as the company’s CEO Andrew Liveris said, it was “integral to Dow's transformation, and a key part of its strategy to invent and innovate new technologies.” The company built a plant in Midland, Michigan, to manufacture the shingles. Former auto workers were retrained, and hundreds of people were hired.

Dow's Powerhouse solar shingles.

It was a story straight out of a politician’s campaign speech, or SolarCity’s pitch to build its gigafactory in Buffalo, New York: green-energy jobs were going to revitalize a down-on-its-luck Rust Belt town.

The trouble is, it didn’t work. Last month, Dow announced that it was stopping its Powerhouse Solar program and shutting down manufacturing. The last shingles were scheduled to ship on Wednesday, and the “majority” of 130 workers in the company’s Dow Solar division would be laid off in Midland and Cupertino, California—part of an overall planned layoff of 700 jobs in Michigan and 2,500 globally.

SolarCity’s product may very well be completely different from Dow’s shingles. And there’s no reason to suspect it’s necessarily doomed, despite the fact that SolarCity continues to lose money at a good clip. SolarCity’s biggest problem may be that it built its business on leasing its panels to customers, when in fact owning a rooftop solar array is looking pretty good to customers these days. So if the company moved into building solar roofs that it could sell, that might be a good thing.

But as they charge ahead with their sprawling gigafactory, Musk and SolarCity might want to be very specific about what is meant when they say they want to build “solar roofs,” given that a very similar technology has come before, and its track record isn’t the sunniest.

(Read more: Wall Street Journal, CNN, MLive, “Paying for Solar Power”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

biomass with Charm mobile unit in background
biomass with Charm mobile unit in background

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Peter Reinhardt
Peter Reinhardt

How Charm Industrial hopes to use crops to cut steel emissions

The startup believes its bio-oil, once converted into syngas, could help clean up the dirtiest industrial sector.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.