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Tesla’s Solar Roof Story: So Far, So Superficial

Its new solar shingles were shown off in a fictional neighborhood, with an unconvincing narrative to match.
October 31, 2016

Tesla chose to unveil its new solar roof technology on the fictional road of Wisteria Lane from the TV show Desperate Housewives. The choice may have proven apt: like the set that was used as a model for the new products, the technology for now remains rather superficial.

Elon Musk’s dream of an all-electric future is no secret: the man runs the electric-car company Tesla and solar-energy provider SolarCity, after all. But speaking at the launch event, which took place in one of the famous street sets at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, he explained that for his imagined future to become a reality, the whole thing—solar panels, energy storage, and electric car—“needs to be beautiful, affordable, and seamlessly integrated.”

Elon Musk sees a bright future for Tesla's latest product.

His new solar roof so far goes a long way to achieving the first of those three aims. Tesla's new tiles, made of quartz, are individual solar panels disguised to look like regular shingles. The idea is to turn your entire roof into an electricity-creating surface, while maintaining the looks that we’re all accustomed to. As the Verge shows, in that much the company has succeeded. They’re so far being manufactured in four designs, from rustic-looking Tuscan terracotta tiles to smooth, modern slates. They all look pretty great.

The effect is apparently made possible by a coating, developed alongside 3M, that allows light to pass through the upper surface in some directions but appears opaque when viewed from others. So from the sidewalk the tiles look like a regular roof, but sunlight from above can head straight through to the solar cell. That is undeniably smart.

But when it came to detail at the event, things were lacking. As Wired notes, Musk failed to talk about pricing, performance, availability, or installation.

Those factors will affect the adoption of its new tiles more than aesthetics will. So for now at least, it’s impossible to predict whether they’ll sell. Certainly, others have failed to make a go of solar shingles in the recent past: Dow Chemical scrapped its own initiative earlier this year, though its tiles weren't as easy on the eyes as Tesla’s.

The one convincing storyline that the announcement reinforces is that of the cozying relationship between Tesla and SolarCity. Musk plans for the automaker to acquire the solar-energy company, and talks of efficiencies that will be made possible by the two joining forces. Many people are skeptical of the merger, but the new solar roof concept blurs the lines between the two companies more than ever.

If this were actually a TV show, a jealous third party might enter the scene. But so far it feels like this particular script is a work in progress.

(Read more: Reuters, Wired, the Verge, TechCrunch, “Why Tesla Wants to Sell a Battery for Your Home,” “Elon Musk’s House of Gigacards,” “Elon Musk’s Bonkers Plan to Join Tesla and SolarCity”)

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