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Green Building News

Production of Tesla’s Solar Roof Tiles Bogs Down

According to reports, assembly line problems and aesthetic concerns from Tesla's CEO are to blame

One of four varieties of glass-topped solar roofing tiles from Tesla. This one is made to look like slate. (Photo: Tesla)

By now, production of Tesla’s Solar Roof shingles at a giant new factory in Buffalo, New York, should have been in full swing. But problems on the assembly line and the aesthetic quibbles from Tesla’s CEO have resulted in delays and few completed solar installations, Reuters has reported.

Tesla announced in late 2016 that it planned four versions of the glass-topped roofing tiles. Viewed at an oblique angle from the ground, the roofing looked like slate or another material, offering homeowners the benefits of photovoltaics without the racks and panels that came with conventional systems.

Tesla’s plans got a great deal of media attention, and the company built a new factory in Buffalo with the help of $750 million in subsidies from the State of New York. It planned to team with Panasonic to manufacture the shingles, and Tesla began taking $1,000 deposits from prospective customers last year.

So, how’s it going? According to Reuters, not so great.

Citing unnamed current and former employees, Reuters said that production has been at such low levels that Panasonic is testing the waters to see if it might be able to sell some of the solar cells it makes in Buffalo to buyers other than Tesla. Panasonic also has been making solar panels, but instead of selling them to Tesla for a Tesla-branded module, Panasonic has been selling some of them under its own label.

Only one of the four types of solar tiles are currently being made — one with a textured, black surface — and Reuters estimated that annualized production of solar panels and cells in Buffalo is about one-quarter of Tesla’s target.

Another holdup, according to Reuters, are Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s aesthetic objections to the roofing tiles. Its report quoted one former Tesla employee as saying the appearance of the roofing “is the key point that Elon is always not satisfied with. That’s the big issue.”

Installation numbers are hazy

Musk said last month in a telephone conference call with Tesla investors that hundreds of solar roofs had been installed. Later, the company walked back the comments and said that number included systems that were partly installed or were scheduled for installation.

Reuters reported that only a dozen systems had been connected to the grid as of May 31, all of them in northern California.

GBA sent Tesla an email request for an update on how many solar roofs have been installed so far, how many deposits it had accepted from prospective customers, and what its current production rate was in Buffalo. In response, Tesla referred GBA to its first- and second-quarter updates, which are largely focused on its electric car business.

The reports didn’t offer any specifics on its solar roof operations. “We are steadily ramping Solar Roof production in Buffalo and are also continuing to iterate on the product design and productions process, learning from our early factory production and field installations,” the second-quarter report said. “We plan to ramp production more toward the end of 2018…”

A spokesman said the Buffalo plant now has more than 600 employees.

There were some strings attached to the New York State financial incentives. Tesla promised to have 1,460 people on the job in Buffalo  within two years of the plant’s completion and to bring 5,000 jobs in New York within 10 years, The Buffalo News reported. Also, Tesla pledged to spend $5 billion in the state over 10 years.

Tesla faces penalties of up to $41 million a year if it falls short of its targets.

The state assemblyman who represents a district near the plant was concerned after a tour in March. However, Empire State Development, the state agency which is monitoring the agreement, said that Tesla is currently meeting its obligations. Tesla said it employs about 600 people and is on track to meet its commitments, Reuters said.

Separately, Electrek reported in July that while production of the roofing tiles has been slower than anticipated, the few customers who have solar roofs seemed pleased. Data posted by one of them, a homeowner living in San Jose, California, showed that in a span of one week a combination of Powerwall batteries and the solar roof tiles had reduced their demand for grid energy to 3 kilowatt hours.

This post was updated on September 7 with additional information from Tesla.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #1

    This is unfortunate for some of us who's been waiting for their products for a long time... a lot of hoopla and nothing to show for. With all the bad issues facing Tesla in resent months and years, I'm stating to wonder if a lot of this is just BS, taking money from investors and people's deposits with powerwalls, roofs and cars, getting State and local tax incentives, working with other people's moneys until he gets his products (S***) working... it seems like a bad business model.
    I've worked with people like that, and sooner or later, it all catches up with them.

    1. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #3

      Building-integrated PV has been tried and failed several times, and it's no surprise that this one's going under too. I wasn't holding out much hope on this mis-adventure.

      Selling their PV plant to Panasonic and focusing on their car and battery products is probably the right thing to do.

      The Tesla home battery wait times are long (and will likely remain so) because of the HUGE success of their grid-battery products. There is competition in both markets, but Tesla has a good market share and will likely succeed in that market. They own a good share of the luxury EV market too. Getting the Model 3 production numbers fantasy didn't seem very likely, but they've beaten my (admittedly low) expectations on that too.

      Betting against Tesla as a car company still may not be a good bet, but building integrated solar at scale seems forever doomed. Solar City had a better shot when it was standard panel types and a better financing & control schemes. SunRun is currently eating some of what would have been their lunch in my neighborhood with solar + (non-Tesla) storage options.

      1. User avater
        Armando Cobo | | #5

        I happen to be one of those folks that wish for Musk and all his companies to do well. We need people to think outside the box, like Tesla, Edison, Gates, Jobs, and many others. Those guys have had a lot of failures and successes. What I'm in gasp of caution is of local and state governments giving upfront incentives to companies without performance guaranties, specially when its all from taxpayers. As far as individual investors go, I get it, its all a gamble, and hopefully it will payoff someday, but with all that said, its their own money. From Musk's point of view, if you can get away with it, why not.

  2. Trevor Lambert | | #2

    Colour me unsurprised by any of this. Between Musk's physics defying Hype - loop (sic), intercontinental rocket travel, and this solar shingle product which he claims is magically going to cost less than a traditional shingle (maybe he factored in the credulous fools who would provide government subsidies), he's fast proving himself not much more than a snake oil salesman. Multiple different companies have already had solar shingles on the market for years. The only reason anyone paid any attention to this is because they drank the Tesla Kool-Aid.

  3. Peter L | | #4

    Elon Musk is the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Everyone wants to see the Great Oz and when they arrive, it's lightning, thunder, smoke and mirrors but in reality it's just some dude sitting behind a curtain selling dreams, hopes and making himself appear super human and powerful. Everything he has done has fallen short of the great promises he initially made. The Powerwall, the Model3, SpaceX, rooftop solar and now his underground transportation system.

    Sadly, people drink his Kool-Aid and Elon can do no wrong. They worship the altar of Musk but like every mortal being, he wall fall, and when he does, his followers will weep and gnash their teeth. Hopefully they don't do a Heaven's Gate Hale-Bopp and exit the world in their purple robes and sneakers. Until then, his followers are off to see the wizard on the yellow brick road...

    1. Randell Jesup | | #12

      I'm not a follower - no Tesla, not on the list, never taken a test drive (have 4 friends with them though). I would say that SpaceX has been a pretty wild success - reusing boosters like that (and flying them back to pads or barges) is pretty darn impressive -- and a pretty good way to cut final costs/lb to orbit. Sure, given his expansive projects he's bound to have some fail spectacularly, but it's still uncertain this will fail. And he has some real advantages on traditional car manufacturers (and some disadvantages, sure). He has not played it safe - major production ramps, moving to high volume production without slowly building your way to that point - but that also has a huge upside when it succeeds, and so far it more-or-less has been. He proved that electric cars didn't have to be slow, barely-useful limited range vehicles. They could be world-killer fast, smooth, with enough useful range to be an honest only car. In August he outsold BMW in passenger cars (BMW beats tesla when you include SUVs), and BMW's i3 electric sold <500 cars for the month.

  4. Meyer Brendan | | #6

    I don't know a lot about solar panels, but I know a lot about slate. There's no way that photo is of solar panels. That's slate. Or I'll bow down at Musk's feet.

    1. Yupster | | #7

      I don't know a lot about slate but I believe it's actually broken from slabs of real slate stone and then shaped as desired. This would lead to random surfaces. If you look closely at the photo, the breakage patterns on many of those tiles are identical to each other. Seems to be made from some kind of mold, press, print, etc. I could be wrong because again, I know very little about slate roofs. Never even seen one. :D

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Meyer,
    Yupster is right. The repetitive chips and cracks -- identical markings -- are the giveaway.

  6. Jaccen | | #9

    His companies surely are polarizing. I always take his deadlines with a grain of salt. However, I'm never willing to outright dismiss what he says he will deliver on. Everyone said landing rockets was the stuff of science fiction. Now the old guard of the Space Race are scrambling to find ways to bilk the American from their tax dollars to keep their antiquated business model afloat. The optimism and promise of the products is refreshing and market disrupting enough that I can't help rooting for the guy, warts and all.

    1. Trevor Lambert | | #10

      "Everyone said landing rockets was the stuff of science fiction."

      I'm not sure that's even true. In fact, I'm sure the "everyone" part is untrue, and I'm skeptical even if you replaced "everyone" with "a lot of people". I suspect it belongs with the idea that we discovered the earth was a globe at the time of Columbus, whereas in reality we'd known it for at least 2000 years before then.

      Regardless, let's say people did say that. It doesn't help Musk's case at all. His ideas are still open for evaluation on their own merit. If you look into the details of say the Hyper Loop on even a superficial level, there are obvious problems. The more you look into it, the more and more crazy it reveals itself to be. He's counting on people not looking that closely, and rooting for him because the story he's pitching is one they want to believe. The mainstream media is no help, just parroting sound bites without any critical thought whatsoever. This isn't just harmless fantasy either, as massive amounts of non-renewable resources and, in some cases, public money is being squandered on this nonsense.

      1. Jaccen | | #11

        “There was a chief engineer of another launch provider, I will not say the name, who told me, categorically, to my face, you will never land a first-stage booster. It is impossible, and even if you do it, it will be completely wrecked,” Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer at European satellite giant SES, said earlier this spring, shortly before his company’s latest satellite flew on the first SpaceX rocket stage to be reused. “Never say never, eh?”
        https://qz.com/1016072/a-multimedia-history-of-every-single-one-of-spacexs-attempts-to-land-its-booster-rocket-back-on-earth/

        I'll concede the "everyone" as it's far reaching. Though, it's funny that you compare it to the idea of Columbus. A man whose trip was the result of years of lobbying that brought an abundance of wealth back to those who backed him. Just as those experts doubted his calculations and the rewards, we now see that same thing happening with space launches. The drop in price we'll see in satellites and their construction makes for exciting times.

        Always question everything--of course. If you can't stand to lose money on an idea, don't back it. This is true of gambling, purchasing one's residence, marriage, and a host of other things.

        "All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."
        T. E. Lawrence

        I respectfully disagree that the media parrots.

        "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So, when billionaire innovator Elon Musk released a white paper detailing the concept of Hyperloop, it divided opinion. Here, Justin Cunningham voices his concerns about the fledgling technology."
        http://www.eurekamagazine.co.uk/design-engineering-features/technology/the-impossible-engineering-reality-check-facing-hyperloop/157339/

        The public is more than welcome to vote over a perceived misappropriation of funds and resources.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontario_power_plant_scandal
        https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/doug-ford-ending-cap-and-trade-1.4731954

        “Good ideas are always crazy until they're not.” - Larry Page

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