Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla (TSLA) and chairman of SolarCity (SCTY), hopped on an earnings call Tuesday night amid acquisition talks between the two companies to announce that SolarCity plans to release a “solar roof.” Not a roof with solar panels, mind you. A solar roof. “It’s a solar roof as opposed to a module on a roof,” Musk said on the SolarCity earnings call. “It’s not a thing on the roof, it is the roof.”
The idea is that instead of just selling solar panels that can be placed on someone’s existing roof, SolarCity can sell the entire roof itself with the solar power capabilities built into it, potentially opening up a whole new market. “If your roof is nearing end-of-life, well, you’ve got to get a new roof anyway,” Musk explained. “And so, why not have a solar roof that’s better in many others ways as well?”
Elon Musk didn’t reveal what the solar roof would be, only that it would be an integrated roof product. This would be sold to builders of new homes as well as for roof replacements. CEO Lyndon Rive said the product would focus on selling to installers of the 5 million new roofs put in each year in the U.S.
What exactly that means is a bit of a mystery. Remember, SolarCity’s Silevo technology is built with silicon, which is fairly fragile, and isn’t the kind of roof product people can be walking on. The entire system would have to be redesigned with solar cells sitting on top of a sturdier substrate. And that could bring up even more problems than are worth dealing with, which I’ll get to below.
By creating a product that actually replaces roofing material, SolarCity’s power generation offering becomes not an add-on, but a core housing component, with a much easier sell opportunity both for new construction and whenever a home has to re-roof (typically once every 20 years or so depending on the type of shingle used). Both Musk and Rive signalled they see a huge market opportunity in new roof builds.
It’s very likely that a solar roof option would be more expensive than a traditional one – probably by a wide margin. But SolarCity will also probably market in the cost of power production over however long the roof will last, which I’m sure will more than balance the construction cost, at least on paper.
Tesla, the electric car company, is currently in the middle of a deal to buy SolarCity for $2.6 billion (£1.97bn) to create the “world’s only vertically integrated sustainable energy company”.
One of the reasons for the deal is to help SolarCity become profitable. In February, it was reported that the company’s fourth-quarter revenue had increased but an increase in operating expenses led to “worse-than-expected” losses.