Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Sustainable Energy

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.

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”)

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
Dow's Powerhouse solar shingles.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Next in Top Stories

Your guide to what matters today

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.