Tesla unveils PV tiles ahead of SolarCity vote

Tesla and SolarCity chairman Elon Musk unveiled a groundbreaking rooftop solar product on Friday that would do away with standard roof-mounted PV panels for many future customers, though a lack of detail led to disappointment among some close observers of the companies.

Three weeks before shareholders will vote to approve or reject Tesla’s proposed acquisition of SolarCity, now valued at $2.2bn, Musk pulled back the curtain on a new range of rooftop tiles whose embedded PV cells are invisible to anyone at ground level.

Unlike previous building-integrated PV (BIPV) products available on the market, Tesla’s solar tiles will not look any different from regular roof tiles – underscoring Tesla’s ambition to translate its reputation for beautiful aesthetics over to the behind-the-meter solar and battery storage sectors.

Designed jointly by Tesla and SolarCity, the PV tiles will initially come in four styles, allowing homeowners to “seamlessly and beautifully” generate solar power while improving the structural integrity of their roofs compared to standard roofing materials, Musk says.

The PV tiles are aimed at the market for new roofs, with as many as five million new roofs built in the US each year, according to Lyndon Rive, chief executive of SolarCity, the country’s largest rooftop solar installer.

For existing homeowners not planning to install a new roof, regular solar panels like those SolarCity installs today will continue to make the most sense.

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The product announcement comes as part of a broad confidence-building campaign for SolarCity and Tesla ahead of the mid-November shareholder vote. The heavily hyped announcement was made at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where Tesla showed off several mock homes with the PV tiles installed.

Yet Musk did not disclose a number of key details about the solar tiles and their potential impact on Tesla’s planned move into the solar business – including their cost, when they will be available, how exactly they work, where and how they will be made, and the channels through which they will reach the market.

Silicon Valley-based SolarCity, which will install about 1GW of rooftop PV capacity this year, is moving into the upstream PV manufacturing business through its huge factory under construction in upstate New York.

Earlier this month Tesla revealed that if the acquisition goes through, Japan’s Panasonic will operate the New York factory and sell modules to Tesla.

Despite its obvious appeal to home- and building owners, BIPV remains a tiny niche within the broader distributed solar market, with standard PV panels still significantly cheaper and easier to install and maintain.

Earlier this year Dow Chemical pulled the plug on its Powerhouse line of solar shingles, arguably the highest profile BIPV product available in the market. Dow’s shingles relied on CIGS thin-film PV technology, while Panasonic’s PV technology employs a combination of thin-film and crystalline-silicon technologies.

Underscoring its ambitious push into the energy business, Tesla has also recently unveiled upgrades to its Powerwall and Powerpack battery systems, and launched itself into the inverter-manufacturing business.

Tesla recently began installing its $5,500 Powerwall 2 systems for residential customers, which can store enough electricity to power a four-bedroom home for a day.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s new Powerpack – aimed at large businesses and electric utilities – comes with twice the energy density of the product's first generation.

Both the Powerpack and Powerwall systems rely on lithium-ion batteries and inverters made by Tesla at its Gigafactory in Nevada.

Tesla is currently building a battery project for Southern California Edison, which will become the world’s largest battery-storage system when it is completed later this year.

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