After hinting for weeks about a groundbreaking design to lure more customers to solar energy, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Friday showcased a line of high-design roof tiles that generate power from the sun without the clunky panels sold by most companies.
“The key is to make solar look good,” Musk said during the product introduction staged on the old set of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” series at the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot. “We want you to call your neighbors over and say, ‘Check out this sweet roof.’ ”
Musk, chief executive of Tesla and chairman of SolarCity, intends to build a personal alternative energy ecosystem connected by software and harmonious design, all under the Tesla brand name. The idea is that green-minded homeowners will mix with performance-oriented automotive geeks at Tesla retail stores to shop for electric cars, charging stations, solar rooftops and wall-mounted batteries for energy storage — all available separately but designed to work best as a system.
The new configuration unveiled Friday also includes an upgrade of Tesla’s Powerwall battery, which can bank energy for times the sun doesn’t shine for both household uses and recharging the Tesla in the garage.
To further that energy tie-up, Tesla has offered more than $2 billion to buy SolarCity, which is run by Musk’s cousin, Lyndon Rive. Shareholders of the two companies vote on the merger Nov. 17.
The concept of integrating solar panels into rooftops has been attempted by others, with mixed results. Dow Chemical Co., for instance, recently phased out its solar shingle business.
Scott McIntyre, who heads a Florida company that has been installing integrated solar roof systems on commercial buildings since 2008, called Musk’s announcement “a marketing ploy to try to increase sales.”
“While I applaud Mr. Musk and have great admiration for him and his technologies, integrated roofs are not particularly new,” said McIntyre, chief executive of Tampa-based Solar Energy Management.
“What Tesla-SolarCity is trying to do is make it aesthetically attractive,” he said. “He’s got a great marketing machine. He knows how to create hype.”
And hyped it was.
Not long before dusk, with a live webcast streaming the event, Musk revealed his own version of an integrated rooftop solar product for homeowners who might shy away from traditional boxy solar panels attached to their shingles or barrel tile roofs.
The tech empresario, dressed casually in a gray sweater and jeans, had commissioned stylish solar tile roofs on four homes along Wisteria Lane, where the “Desperate Housewives” characters appeared from 2004 to 2012.
Dozens of Tesla and SolarCity clients and VIPs, many of whom arrived in Tesla electric cars, noshed on hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob and coleslaw. They ogled four styles of glass solar shingles resembling French slate, Tuscan barrel tile and versions of more conventional roofing materials with smooth or textured surfaces.
“We want it to look better, last longer, provide better insulation and cost less, all things considered,” than a conventional roof with solar panels attached, Musk said, without providing details about the cost or efficiency of the roof tiles.
Musk said the company would roll out the solar shingles by summer, starting in California, the largest U.S. solar market.
Musk and Rive promised in August that they would release a product that Musk said “will be quite a standout. One of the things I’m really excited about.”
Rive all but bet the announcement would trigger growth in SolarCity sales as the company lures homeowners off the sidelines with its new design. “I’m expecting to increase dramatically in Q4.”
Revenue during the first six months of the year almost doubled that of the same period in 2015, but the company’s net loss for 2016 was more than $230 million higher.
SolarCity’s value is far from its February 2014 high of $84.96 per share. The company’s stock price hovers around $20 a share now.
For Musk, who just reported a surprise quarterly profit at Tesla, design has always been supreme.
The company had fashioned its sleek Powerwall home storage batteries with lines that complement the silhouette of a Tesla Model S, but to Musk, SolarCity’s solar panels looked like the same commodity products every other solar installer was selling.
He pushed the company to not only make the product cheaper and more energy efficient, but to look a lot better, too.
"This needs to be an asset to your house,” he said, repeating it in public appearances over the past few weeks.
Musk says he spends most of his time on engineering and design, and on Wednesday emphasized the essential relationship between the two in a conference call with stock analysts.
“It’s important to have tight control over the production of solar panels … to have a beautiful roof product,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to iterate rapidly and have them made exactly how we want them.”
A 2014 survey by home-solar power provider Lumeta found that slightly under a third of respondents considered appearance very or extremely important, while slightly over a third said the look was slightly important or not important at all.
“People spend a lot of time trying to create an attractive home,” said Andy Ogden, chairman of the industrial design graduate program at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “They don’t want funny glass boxes stuck on one side of their roof.”
Making solar roofs more attractive “increases the number of people who will install solar,” he said.
Rive noted in August that 5 million U.S homes get new roofs each year — “a really big market segment” that won’t cannibalize SolarCity’s existing market.