It is fitting that the launch of Tesla’s solar roof was held on the set for Desperate Housewives, “on Wisteria Lane, a street in the fictional town of Fairview in the fictional Eagle State” where according to Wikipedia, they “worked through domestic struggles and family life, while facing the secrets, crimes and mysteries hidden behind the doors of their —on the surface—beautiful and seemingly perfect suburban neighborhood.”
Elon Musk is also working through the secrets and mysteries of our carbon problems, and offering a three part solution of generation, with Solar City, storage, with the Powerwall, and Transport, with the Tesla.
But what is getting all the pixels is that Musk has introduced a new solar roof shingle, in four different styles. They are made of tempered glass so that they are stronger and more durable than clay or slate or just about any other roof. they have a “micro-louvre” layer so that when you look at it from the street, you just see roof, but when you look at it from above, you see the solar cell.
The slate roof tile is made so that every one is different, with randomly generated patterns that make it look very real. They really are so beautiful that you can imagine, as Musk does, calling over your neighbours and saying “hey, check out my sweet roof.”
Musk says that “If you have a great solar roof, a big battery pack and an electric car, you can solve the whole energy equation.” He does not say what it costs, but notes that it will have a “lower cost than a traditional roof when combined with projected utility bill savings.”
They are nice to look at, which has never been something one has been able to say about rooftop solar. He has done for solar panels what he did for electric cars: turned what were ugly and utilitarian into true objects of desire. Musk asks a valid question when he says they are “beautiful, affordable, integrated; if all these were true why would you go any other direction?”
Indeed, why? There are a couple of reasons one might consider it. Technically, there is the fact that in any system, it is the connections that are most likely to fail, and rooftop shingles have a lot of connections, subject to thermal and other stresses. There had better be a very clever system for mounting the shingles so that they can be removed so that one can get at those connections.
Philosophically, combining moisture management (which is what roofs do) with power generation goes against the principles of open building, “to maintain a separation between the different aspects of the building in order to be able to make repairs and do upgrades with a minimum of interference with other elements of the building”.
Urbanistically, it promotes and justifies sprawl. I have noted before that “Rooftop solar disproportionately favors those who have rooftops, preferably big ones on one-story houses on big suburban lots. Those people tend to drive a lot.” Readers have responded "so what?" Most people want to live in houses with backyards. If it is carbon free and the car is electric, powered by the sun, what’s the problem?
Writer Amanda Kolson Hurley responds to my concern:
Critics will say Musk is perpetuating suburbanism w/solar roof+Tesla+Powerwall. The other way to look at it-he's meeting ppl where they are.— Amanda Kolson Hurley (@amandakhurley) October 29, 2016
And of course she is right, that is where the market and the money is. And yes, I am a critic of this. I do believe that we should be promoting for radical building efficiency, higher densities and walkable, cyclable communities instead of falling in love with rooftop solar, with everyone in their own independent suburban world with a Tesla in every garage, a Powerwall and a glass roof. But oh, what a beautiful roof, and what a gorgeous car, and that Powerwall really is a game -changer.
Elon Musk is absolutely right, we have to figure out generation, energy storage and transportation. But we can’t all live on Wisteria Lane. We have to figure this out for everyone, not just those who can afford or desire private roofs, private batteries and private cars.