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Home Op-Ed Tech Wise by Peter Vogel Elon Musk shakes up roofing industry with solar roof tiles

Elon Musk shakes up roofing industry with solar roof tiles

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Homeowners can go to Tesla for a new roof, not just a new car
Peter Vogel

Elon Musk is at it again, or, should we say, at it still. One day he's overseeing his SpaceX venture at Cape Canaveral, the next he's at the Tesla vehicle facility in California.

Two weeks ago the peripatetic Musk dropped another invention bombshell, this time roofing tiles that look like, well, roofing tiles; not just any roofing tiles, mind you: solar roofing tiles that provide a return to the homeowner.

Not only that, Musk said, but a system that should last three to five times as long as traditional asphalt roofing tiles. That might mean a roof that lasts as long as, or even outlives, a typical house.

That would certainly be a novel concept, especially here in the Lower Mainland, where roof replacement is a ritual all homeowners fear and detest. Solar roofing would form part, naturally, of Musk's long-term vision of the world running on clean and sustainable energy.

Musk has made a name for himself with his Tesla electric vehicle and various related businesses that focus on renewable energy. That's where the roofing comes in: roof tiles, essentially indistinguishable from existing roofing such as asphalt shingles and clay tiles, that generate photovoltaic electricity: solar energy, if you will.

In typical Musk fashion, he announced his roofing venture on the mythical Wisteria Lane, the set of the long-running Desperate Housewives television series. Four of the Wisteria Lane homes had been reroofed with the new Tesla brand solar energy tiles.

As seen from the street, the Tesla roofing system looked pretty much as you would expect. There was a variety of colours, and there were four designs: "Textured Glass Tile," "Slate Glass Tile," "Tuscan Glass Tile," and "Smooth Glass Tile."

All these roof tiles look opaque from the street. However, to sunlight, the roofing is essentially transparent, allowing the light to strike the solar cells with very minimal loss at the surface, claims Musk.

What about that "return to the homeowner"? Musk was cagey on that aspect, not providing any actual figures, just saying that the cost of the solar energy tiles would be comparable to that of existing roofing, plus the electrical energy equivalent. Mind you, the four designs are among the most expensive traditional roofing materials available.

At the Wisteria Lane unveiling Musk debuted a second generation of his storage device for solar-generated electricity, a PowerWall 2.0. It was unclear whether the roofing cost comparison included the PowerWall storage device that stores electricity generated for use later.

Musk's vision is not without its critics. Some scientists question his claim that the glass roof tiles have 98 per cent of the efficiency of a typical solar panel. However Musk has so far not responded to questions about this and other claims about his product.

Some skeptics have noted that solar panels are prone to failure from moisture at their electrical connections. In the Musk system these connections would be under and between the tiles, and it would certainly be difficult to isolate and repair problems with these connections should they arise.

The Musk system differs from traditional solar panel installations in that the electrical components are an integral part of the roofing. Only one installation crew would be needed: a roofing team with electrical expertise to connect the home electrical system.

What Musk has done is shake up the solar-electricity industry. The technology of solar panels is well developed, and costs for them have dropped dramatically over the last five years.

Musk stated he expected to see installations using two of the four tile designs starting next summer, but with one caveat: that Tesla successfully take over SolarCity, a major installer of solar panels.

Readers facing a roof replacement over the next few years may want to check with the Roofing Contractors Association of B.C. to see if the Musk system is being offered here.

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