In California, solar energy is already huge. The state’s 15,000 megawatts of solar—the equivalent of several nuclear power plants—can provide power to over 3 million homes. But not every state has California's sky-high energy prices or its green-energy subsidies to push homeowners to install solar panels. Solar energy needs a user-friendly makeover to really take off elsewhere in America. And thanks to Tesla, that’s happening right now.
The company has announced a new alternative to the solar panel: The Solar Roof. Developed in conjunction with 3M, Tesla’s tiny, semi-translucent tiles are nearly indistinguishable from traditional roofing.
"How do we have a solar roof that’s better than a normal roof?" Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked on stage. "That looks better, lasts longer, has a better insulating effect—and where the cost of roof plus electricity is less than that of a normal roof."
Tesla's answer is a three-layer solar shingle. On the bottom is a typical solar panel. The next layer is a louver film—the same sort of coating that makes a laptop or smartphone privacy screen visible from a head-on angle only. In this case, that privacy screen is built for the sun, so you can’t see the solar panel layer from the street. And on top sits tempered glass that Musk, in drop tests, demonstrated was more shatter-resistant than traditional alternatives like clay. (Though, presumably, this tempered glass is not immune to the old shattered iPhone screen effect.) Musk is even promising that these shingles will be available in many styles, like thatch and terra cotta—essential, if the world’s roofs aren't going to look like they’ve all been topped with smartphones.
So what does this have to do with Tesla cars? Musk is introducing a vision of what he calls an "integrated future," including an electric car, a home battery, and a solar roof. In this future, you might go to a Tesla dealer, drop a still-unknown amount of funds, and set your homestead up with all the green energy and transportation it needs for the foreseeable future. And indeed, most experts I’ve spoken to in the energy space don’t think this is such a wild idea. The future of power will almost certainly be decentralized from a single gigantic power plant; instead, every neighborhood or even home might be like the node on a giant circuit, contributing energy and borrowing from neighbors with millisecond responsivity.
But while this is a McMansion-friendly vision of a cleaner energy future, there are a few catches to keep in mind: Musk hasn’t promised the Solar Roof will generate enough power to take the average home off the grid—indeed, he stated pretty clearly that he believes utilities will still produce two thirds of all energy in the future. Furthermore, he has not announced pricing or availability just yet.
And then there's another major catch: For it to really take off, the Solar Roof will need to be easy enough for any contractor to install. As of now, the UX for homeowners looks fantastic. For handymen? It’s not so clear.