What Are Solar Shingles? How Do They Work?

Solar shingles offer solar power with a sleeker roofline, but often at a higher price.

Solar panels on roof
kevinjeon00 / Getty Images

Solar shingles are small solar panels designed to resemble and replace traditional roofing materials. They are incorporated into the roof itself to generate energy.

While solar shingles are an effective source of solar power, they aren't the most efficient or economical option. To shed more light on this method of generating solar power and new developments in the technology, here is a closer look at solar shingles, including how they work and how they compare with other solar options.

What Are Solar Shingles?

National Renewable Energy Lab Tests Green Energies In Colorado
National Renewable Energy Lab roof shingle testing in Golden, Colorado. John Moore / Getty Images

Solar shingles have been commercially available since 2005. They are designed by merging solar panels with the roof instead of just mounting them on top of it.

All solar shingles are designed to function as both roofing materials and power sources, but they can achieve that dual purpose in a few ways. Some solar shingles use silicon as a semiconductor, as do most conventional solar panels. Others rely on thin-film solar cells, which feature super-thin layers of certain photovoltaic materials.

The thinness of these solar cells makes them lighter and more flexible. While older versions of flexible thin-film solar roofing had to be installed on top of another roofing material, newer products are rigid and sturdy enough to serve as shingles themselves.

Solar shingles look like asphalt shingles. Solar tiles are another type of solar roofing but are made to resemble other roofing types, like terracotta.

What Are Solar Tiles?

Solar tiles are similar to solar shingles, but while the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they also can refer to different types of roofing material. Solar shingles tend to be those designed to look like asphalt shingles, while solar tiles may mimic the appearance of conventional roofing tiles. Some companies sell both solar shingles and solar tiles.

Many integrated solar roofing materials off conversation efficiency of about 15% and an expected life span of 20 years or longer.

How Do Solar Shingles Work?

Like traditional rooftop panels, solar shingles convert solar energy into electricity by harnessing the flow of electrons released when sunlight hits a semiconducting material. While solar shingles and solar panels generate electricity with the same fundamental photovoltaic effect, they have significant installation differences.

Solar shingles are not mounted on racks like other solar panels. Instead, they are attached directly to the roof deck in place of conventional roofing shingles.

Solar shingles are typically installed at the same time as the roof, either during new construction or when replacing an old or damaged roof. This helps homeowners avoid replacing older but functional shingles before necessary and can be performed by a single roofing contractor.

The Cost of Solar Shingles

The installation of solar shingles tends to be more expensive than that of traditional solar panels, especially if you want them to cover your entire roof.

Tesla has become an industry leader in solar shingles. Tesla’s solar roof features solar shingles that are “more than three times stronger than standard roofing tiles” and “engineered for all-weather protection,” the company says. They can reportedly withstand winds of up to 166 mph and hail up to 1.75 inches in diameter.

Solarglass Roof
Close-up of Solarglass Roof, a roof shingle with integrated solar panels, from Tesla Energy, a division of Tesla Motors, on Santana Row in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California.

Gado / Getty Images

The news about Tesla solar roofs is not all positive, though. In April 2021, CEO Elon Musk acknowledged the company has made “significant mistakes” with the solar roof project, leading to service delays and cost increases—with the latter affecting existing customers as well as new ones. Some customers have even sued the company over the price increases.

Tesla now charges by roof complexity. A complex roof reportedly could now cost more than $19 per square foot, but even a simple roof may cost $14 per square foot. Previous estimates from Tesla suggested a 10-kilowatt solar roof in California could cost around $34,000. With those increases and the now-required battery, the estimated total cost of a Tesla solar roof is over $100,000.

Solar Shingles vs. Solar Panels

Solar shingles are sleek and durable. Their benefits include:

  • Aesthetics - solar shingles enable homeowners to generate electricity with a sleek roof.
  • Endurance - many solar shingles are designed to withstand hail and hurricane-force winds, which can be difficult for mounted panels.

Solar shingles can be less efficient and more expensive. Their disadvantages include:

  • Cost - renders solar shingles impractical in many cases unless they're part of a newly constructed or rebuilt roof.
  • Availability - solar shingles may not be offered by some solar installers, and the cost can vary widely between providers.
  • Efficiency - there can be issues with sunlight exposure depending on the slope of the roof.

The advantage of solar shingles is largely aesthetic. They are known for being more expensive and less efficient than standard solar panels, although they may become more practical for many people as better technology improves their performance.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How much do solar shingles cost?

    Depending on the size of your roof, solar shingles can cost anywhere from less than $30,000 to more than $100,000. They're quite expensive outright, but experts argue they're more economical if they're installed as part of a regular roof installation.

  • Can you walk on solar shingles?

    Although walking on solar shingles shouldn't cause any damage to the shingles, it has sparked a safety debate in the solar industry. Tesla has admitted that its solar shingles are quite slippery and unsafe to walk on.

  • Can you go off-grid with solar shingles?

    You can technically go off-grid with solar shingles—and Tesla says with its roof, that's a very attainable option—but shingles are known to be less efficient than traditional solar panels, so you would need a lot of cover and sun exposure, plus a battery to store the solar power, for it to work.

  • Are solar shingles commercially available now?

    Solar shingles are commercially available and have been since 2005.

View Article Sources