Electric car maker Tesla has added another product to its line-up: Solar roof tiles.
As of Wednesday, customers worldwide could order a solar roof on Tesla’s website. Installations will begin next month in the United States, starting with California. Installations outside the US will begin next year, the company said.
The glass tiles were unveiled by Tesla last fall just before the company merged with solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. They’re designed to look like a traditional roof, with options that replicate slate or terracotta tiles. The solar tiles contain photovoltaic cells that are invisible from the street.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said one of the drawbacks to home solar installations has been the solar panels themselves: They’re often awkward, shiny and ugly. Buyers will want Tesla’s roof, he said, because it looks as good or better than a normal roof.
“When you have this installed on your house, you’ll have the best roof in the neighbourhood. The aesthetics are that good,” Musk said in a conference call with media.
The roof is guaranteed for the life of the home, which is longer than the 20-year lifespan for a typical, non-solar roof, Musk said. It has gone through the same hail, fire and wind testing that normal roofs endure.
Tesla’s website includes a calculator where potential buyers can estimate the cost of a solar roof based on the size of their home, the amount of sunlight their neighbourhood receives and federal tax credits. They can also put down a refundable US$1,000 deposit to reserve a place in line.
Tesla said the solar tiles cost US$42 per square foot to install, making them far more costly than slate, which costs around US$17 per square foot, or asphalt, which costs around US$5. But homes would only need between 30 and 40 per cent of their roof tiles to be solar; the rest would be Tesla’s cheaper non-solar tiles which would blend in with the solar ones.
It would cost US$69,100 to install a solar roof with 40-percent solar tiles on a 2,600-square-foot roof in suburban Detroit, according to Tesla’s website. That includes a US$7,000 Tesla Powerwall, a battery unit that stores the energy from the solar panels and powers the home. The roof would be eligible for a US$15,500 federal tax credit and would generate an estimated US$62,100 in electricity over 30 years. Over that time period, Tesla estimates, the homeowner would save US$8,500.
Tesla said the typical homeowner can expect to pay US$21.85 per square foot for a Tesla solar roof. The cost can be rolled into the homeowner’s mortgage payments and paid for over time, the company said.
Musk wouldn’t say how many orders the company expects to get this year. He expects the initial ramp-up to be slow.
“It will be very difficult and it will take a long time, and there will be some stumbles along the way. But it’s the only sensible vision of the future,” Musk said.
Palo Alto, California-based Tesla Inc is making the solar tiles at its Fremont, California, factory initially. But eventually all production will move to a joint Tesla and Panasonic Corp factory in Buffalo, New York. Panasonic makes the photo-voltaic cells used in the solar tiles.
Tesla said it will be installing equipment in the Buffalo factory over the next few months.
Rooftop solar energy is becoming a financially viable way for millions of U.S. consumers to generate their own electricity — and utilities are doing everything to kill the solar boom before it gains too much traction. Utilities in states such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Nevada have tried to undermine rooftop solar at the regulatory level and in ballot measures. As a reaction, voters have fought back and beaten the efforts to squash solar energy.
The impact on residential solar companies Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA), Vivint Solar(NYSE: VSLR), Sunrun (NASDAQ: RUN), and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR) shouldn’t go unnoticed. They’re winning the policy war against utilities, and as they do, it’ll open a larger and larger market across the country.
The election earlier this month was accompanied by a number of ballot initiatives that will impact solar energy for years to come. And for the most part, solar energy was a huge winner.
Despite utilities’ spending $26 million to pass a referendum that would have undermined solar economics in the state, Florida voters rejected the utility referendum. The state now looks like it’ll have a bright solar future.
In Nevada, less than a year after the public utility commission essentially killed the rooftop solar industry, residents overwhelmingly voted to break up Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B)-owned NV Energy’s long monopoly in the state. Customers have to be given energy choice, meaning more solar in one of the country’s sunniest states.
In the past, Wisconsin has tried to add fees to utility bills that would kill solar energy before it ever got started, but those attempts were rejected by the court.
There’s an important trend here for utilities and solar companies: When solar energy goes on the ballot or to the court, it wins. That should have every utility in the country frightened because that gives millions of customers choice regarding their energy needs.
Policy wins are important because they lay the groundwork for future innovations to take hold in energy. Today, that means rooftop solar on more than 1 million homes in the U.S. — and that number is growing quickly.
The next step will be adding energy storage to homes, something that Tesla is leading on and that Vivint, Sunrun, and SunPower are all adding, as well. As energy storage is added, customers can use more of their own energy, making net metering less important and providing more flexibility for customers.
The holy grail for renewable energy is allowing customers to cut the cord to the utility altogether. We may be a decade from that being a reality, but the more utilities add fixed fees or demand charges, the more quickly the economics of cord-cutting will become compelling. Long-duration energy-storage technologies are already beginning to be deployed, and before long, a couple of Powerwalls and a long-duration energy-storage system may be a viable option for consumers, making utilities irrelevant.
Utilities are in a tough position, having incentives to apply policies that protect short-term profits but which may undermine long-term competitiveness. It’s clear that when push comes to shove, voters are willing to overturn utility policies, voting for solar energy across the country. That has to be a concern for utilities, and it shows that the future is getting brighter for solar energy companies providing the solutions customers want.
Electric avenues that can transmit the sun’s energy onto power grids may be coming to a city near you.
A subsidiary of Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck, that they’re now building into road surfaces. After nearly five years of research and laboratory tests, they’re constructing 100 outdoor test sites and plan to commercialize the technology in early 2018.
The electricity generated by this stretch of solar road will feed directly into the grid. Another test site is being used to charge electric vehicles. A third will power a small hydrogen production plant. Wattway has also installed its panels to light electronic billboards and is working on links to street lights.
The next two sites will be in Calgary in Canada and in the U.S. state of Georgia. Wattway also plans to build them in Africa, Japan and throughout the European Union.
“We need to test for all kinds of different traffic and climate conditions,” Harelle said. “I want to find the limits of it. We think that maybe it will not be able to withstand a snow plow.”
The potential fragility joins cost as a potential hurdle.
“We’re seeing solar get integrated in a number of things, from windows in buildings to rooftops of cars, made possible by the falling cost of panels,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Pietro Radoia said. “On roads, I don’t think that it will really take off unless there’s a shortage of land sometime in the future.”’
What will Donald Trump actually do?
It’s a question many Americans are asking themselves now that the U.S. has wrapped up one of its least policy-specific elections ever. The president-elect has offered only the loosest of legislative prescriptions, including whatever plans he may have for the energy industry.
The mystery hangs over turbine manufacturers like Vestas Wind Systems, which fell 12 percent since the election, and coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corp., which soared 73 percent. In his only major energy speech, Trump, 70, said he would rescind “job-destroying” environmental regulations within 100 days of taking office and revive U.S. coal. It’s terrible news for efforts to slow the pace of climate change, but the impact on the renewable energy revolution may be limited. Here’s what it could mean for America’s clean-energy darling, Tesla Motors Inc.:
Tesla is, first and foremost, an electric car company. But on Nov. 17 shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. The acquisition would make Tesla the biggest U.S. rooftop solar installer and the first major manufacturer to integrate solar panels with battery backup to extend power into the night.
The swift spread of rooftop solar in the U.S. has been made possible by two government policies. First, most utilities are required to credit homeowners for the excess power they send back to the grid. Those requirements are state-level and shouldn’t be affected by Trump. Second is the 30 percent federal tax credit to offset the cost of installations. The credits were first signed into law under Republican President George W. Bush in 2005 and extended by a Republican Congress late last year. Given their broad support, the subsidies are unlikely to be repealed.
Solar panel prices have dropped, on average, more than 15 percent a year since 2013. On a utility scale, solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired grid electricity across most of the U.S., after subsidies. Even if the incentives were suddenly removed next year—an improbable and economically destructive scenario—the industry would eventually recover as prices continue to fall.
Incentives are designed to make superior new technologies initially affordable, but once those technologies take off, economies of scale take over.
A loss of the federal tax credit could slow the rollout of Tesla’s unusual new rooftop solar shingles. Traditional rooftop panels, however, are almost ready to stand on their own. The payback period currently ranges from about 5 to 10 years, after subsidies and state rebates. If Tesla can achieve the cost savings it hopes for with the merger, it won’t be long before that’s the payback timeline without subsidies.
One of President Barack Obama’s most significant climate achievements was to push through ambitious fuel-economy regulations for U.S. vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled next year to re-asses rules intended to double the average efficiency of cars and trucks to almost 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Those goals could be delayed or dismantled under Trump, accelerating America’s shift to trucks and SUVs. Stocks of Detroit carmakers have predictably surged, while Tesla shares fell 4.9 percent in the two days after the election.
This is obviously bad news for human health and the environment, but it’s impact on Tesla won’t be catastrophic. The price of batteries is dropping rapidly, and by the early 2020s electric cars should be cheaper and better performing than their gasoline-powered equivalents across the board. Lowering efficiency standards will make gasoline cars a bit cheaper to manufacture, but it will also make them more costly to drive over the life of the vehicle.
The U.S. push for electric cars was set in motion by a $7,500 federal tax break. The Trump administration could eliminate the subsidy, but the impact would be short-lived for electric pioneers including Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Co., and Tesla. That’s because the electric-vehicle subsidies were already designed to phase out after each automaker reaches its 200,000th domestic EV sale. Tesla may be first to cross that finish line, probably in the first half of 2018.
The incentives were intended to overcome steep startup costs and slow initial demand for new electric vehicles. Removing the tax break now would effectively pull the ladder up behind Tesla and make it more expensive for other automakers to transition to battery power, a result that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest.
Some of the biggest incentives in renewable energy are offered by states, not the federal government. Each state has authority over its own solar and wind rebates, credits for power sold back to the grid, renewable-mix requirements for utilities, and electric-car subsidies. These policies cross ideological borders into deeply Republican states. For example, Louisiana residents can get an additional tax credit of almost $10,000 for buying a long-range electric car. In Colorado, it’s an extra $5,000.
Repurposed batteries could create a new revenue stream for EV customers. But it’s not yet clear how the buyback program will work.
The German automaker announced that it is turning new and used i3 batteries into energy storage solutions for homes and small businesses. The company unveiled its plans at an electric vehicle symposium in Montreal.
“With a battery storage system electrified by BMW, our customers can take the next step toward a sustainable energy lifestyle. Coupled with the home-charging and solar energy programs, the system enables BMW drivers to embrace holistic sustainability beyond e-mobility,” said Rob Healey, manager of electric vehicle infrastructure for BMW North America, in a statement.
In an interview, Healey added that energy storage fits with BMW’s 360º Electric program, which currently offers customers electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and rooftop solar through a partnership with SolarCity. Through that partnership BMW i owners receive a $1,000 credit toward SolarCity’s home solar offer. BMW’s sustainability package sounds very similar to the type of solution Tesla wants to offer with its proposed acquisition of SolarCity.
“This is really a part of a much bigger puzzle for BMW that we’re putting together as we look out to the future,” said Healey. “We offer customers electric vehicles, we offer customers charging, and we offer customers access to solar panels and producing their own renewable energy. And now, with this next piece, we offer the customer an energy storage solution that fits into the overall picture of sustainability.”
The market-ready product currently uses i3 high-voltage batteries, but can be equipped to incorporate second-life batteries as they become available. There are relatively few of these used batteries on the market today, because the i3, an all-electric city car, has only been on the market since 2013. That will change as the lithium-ion batteries degrade over time and are no longer considered suitable for vehicle use. A repurposed battery can offer “many additional years of service,” according to BMW.
As i3 batteries reach the end of their automotive life, BMW and German-based Beck Automation plan to turn them into plug-and-play energy storage systems by unbolting them from the i3 and installing them in a Beck-designed charging module. The system is sized to fit conveniently in a basement or a garage where it can be used to power electrically operated devices in a home or to charge an electric car.
The energy storage units are equipped with BMW i3’s 22-kilowatt-hour or 33-kilowatt-hour capacity batteries, which are ideally suited to operate appliances and entertainment devices for up to 24 hours. A typical home in the U.S. consumes between 15 and 30 kilowatt-hours of energy per day.
The systems are outfitted with software to determine the optimal time to charge or discharge the system. The BMW storage system also includes a voltage converter and power electronics to manage the energy flow between renewable energy resources, the home and the battery.
“With this system, which integrates seamlessly with charging stations and solar panels, customers can offset peak energy costs and also enjoy the added security of an available backup energy supply during power outages,” according to the BMW press release.
Theoretically, this concept should give i3 drivers a new way to make money from their used cars by creating a market for second-life batteries. However, it’s not yet clear how a battery buyback program would work.
There are also a number of outstanding questions around battery design and cost. Tesla’s 6.4-kilowatt-hour home battery sells to installers for $3,000 and is estimated to retail for around $7,000. Can BMW’s 22-kilowatt-hour used battery get anywhere close to that price?
In addition, the product release timeline has yet to be determined. According to a spokesman, “BMW is currently evaluating a distribution/marketing strategy where pilot programs in the U.S. could start in 2017.”
BMW has been preparing to enter the stationary energy storage market for a number of years. In 2013, the automaker installed a microgrid application at the University of California San Diego using second-life Mini E batteries. In 2014, BMW integrated high-voltage batteries into a stationary storage system in Hamburg for Vattenfall that stores solar power as a buffer for fast-charging stations. In 2015, NextEra signed a contract for the delivery of 20 megawatt-hours of repurposed automotive batteries from the i3 and BMW’s ActiveE test fleet — which BMW claims is the largest contract of its kind in automotive history.
In addition, BMW continues to participate in an energy storage pilot projectwith Pacific Gas & Electric. Under the program, PG&E manages 100 kilowatts of demand from 100 active i3 vehicles and a stationary unit of repurposed BMW Mini E batteries located at BMW’s Mountain View office. The system was designed to test how electric vehicles and second-life batteries can offer reliability services to the grid. Last fall, BMW shared preliminary results showing that the system had delivered on more than two dozen demand response events called by the utility.
According to Cliff Fietzek, manager of connected e-mobility at BMW North America, past experience revealed that it’s very expensive to reconfigure batteries for reuse, which is why BMW developed a plug-and-play solution for it’s home battery. “We don’t have to put any special software in or take modules out and can take advantage of all of the engineering we put into producing the car battery,” he said. “We can use the same heating and cooling system for the car battery and the same safety mechanisms … there is not too much work to be done on the integration side, which saves a lot on cost and increases flexibility.”
However, the company will have to wait to see the results of its home battery pilot programs before really knowing what the cost and return on investment is, he added.
BMW is the latest auto company to get into stationary storage. Tesla has garnered an enormous amount of attention with the launch of its energy storage business and massive battery Gigafactory. Meanwhile, Toyota,General Motors and Nissan are actively testing stationary storage solutions and looking to make larger plays. Daimler/Mercedes-Benz introduced a stationary battery business in Europe last year, and is rumored to be launching a U.S. product this fall.
The most important piece of news on the energy front isn’t the plunge in oil prices, but the progress that is being made in battery technology. A new study in Nature Climate Change, by Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, shows that electric vehicle batteries have been getting cheaper much faster than expected. From 2007 to 2011, average battery costs for battery-powered electric vehicles fell by about 14 percent a year. For the leading electric vehicle makers, Tesla and Nissan, costs fell by 8 percent a year. This astounding decline puts battery costs right around the level that the International Energy Agency predicted they would reach in 2020. We are six years ahead of the curve. It’s a bit hard to read, but here is the graph from the paper:
This puts the electric vehicle industry at a very interesting inflection point. Back in 2011, McKinsey & Co. made a chart showing which kind of vehicle would be the most economical at various prices for gasoline and batteries:
Looking at this graph, we can see the incredible progress made just since 2011. Battery prices per kilowatt-hour have fallen from about $550 when the graph was made to about $450 now. For Tesla and Nissan, the gray rectangle (which represents current prices) is even farther to the left, to about the $300 range, where the economics really starts to change and battery-powered vehicles become feasible.
But in the past year, the price of gasoline has fallen as well, and is now in the $2.50 range even in expensive markets. A glut of oil, and a possible thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, have moved the gray rectangle down into the dark blue area where internal combustion engines reign supreme.
Still, if battery prices keep falling, the gray rectangle will keep moving to the left. The Swedish researchers believe that Tesla’s new factories will be able to achieve the 30 percent cost reduction the company promises, simply from economies of scale and incremental improvements in the manufacturing process. That, combined with a rebound in gas prices to the $3 range, would be enough to make battery-powered vehicles an economic alternative to internal combustion vehicles in most regions.
But this isn’t the only piece of good energy news. Investment in renewable energy is powering ahead.
The United Nations Environment Programme recently released a report showing that global investment in renewable energy, which had dipped a bit between 2011 and 2013, rebounded in 2014 to a near all-time high of $270 billion. But the report also notes that since renewable costs — especially solar costs — are falling so fast, the amount of renewable energy capacity added in 2014 was easily an all-time high. China, the U.S. and Japan are leading the way in renewable investment. Renewables went from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent of global electricity generation just in 2014.
That’s still fairly slow in an absolute sense. Adding 0.6 percentage point a year to the renewable share would mean the point where renewables take half of the electricity market wouldn’t come until after 2080. But as solar costs fall, we can expect that shift to accelerate. In particular, forecasts are for solar to become the cheapest source of energy — at least when the sun is shining — in many parts of the world in the 2020s.
Each of these trends — cheaper batteries and cheaper solar electricity — is good on its own, and on the margin will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, with all the geopolitical drawbacks and climate harm they entail. But together, the two cost trends will add up to nothing less than a revolution in the way humankind interacts with the planet and powers civilization.
You see, the two trends reinforce each other. Cheaper batteries mean that cars can switch from gasoline to the electrical grid. But currently, much of the grid is powered by coal. With cheap solar replacing coal at a rapid clip, that will be less and less of an issue. As for solar, its main drawback is intermittency. But with battery costs dropping, innovative manufacturers such as Tesla will be able to make cheap batteries for home electricity use, allowing solar power to run your house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
So instead of thinking of solar and batteries as two independent things, we should think of them as one single unified technology package. Solar-plus-batteries is set to begin a dramatic transformation of human civilization. The transformation has already begun, but will really pick up steam during the next decade. That is great news, because cheap energy powers our economy, and because clean energy will help stop climate change.
Of course, skeptics and opponents of the renewable revolution continue to downplay these remarkable developments. The takeoff of solar-plus-batteries has only begun to ramp up the exponential curve, and market shares are still small. But it has begun, and it doesn’t look like we’re going back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View’s editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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