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Sustainable Design for the 21st Century

Where a solar roof works and where it doesn’t

by Megan Geuss (May 19, 2017) arstechnica.com

This is not a one-size-fits-all product.

Last week, Tesla and Tesla’s newly purchased solar-panel company SolarCity announced that they’d be taking pre-orders at $1,000 a pop for installations of their new solar roof product. The solar roof is made up of tiles—some that produce solar power and some inert—that look just like regular roof tiles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the solar roof late last year, just before investors were about to vote on whether the electric-car company should buy SolarCity. At the reveal, Musk told the crowd that “the goal is to have a roof that’s less than the installed cost of a roof plus electricity.” Later, in a conversation with reporters, Musk said, “It’s not gonna make sense for somebody to replace a brand-new roof with a solar roof.”

But after that announcement, the CEO got bolder with his claims on the cost of his company’s roof, saying at a shareholder meeting that “It’s looking quite promising that a solar roof actually [costs] less than normal roof before you even take the value of electricity into account.”

Perhaps Musk meant this as a long-term projection, because when pre-orders opened up last Wednesday, Tesla and SolarCity also rolled out a calculator to give prospective customers an estimate on how much a solar roof would cost them. For many, the projected cost was well above the cost of a basic asphalt roof with a 30-year warranty, but roughly in line with the cost of a normal roof plus solar panels. For others, the projected cost was much more than what they would expect a new roof with any amount of solar panels to cost.

Right now, making the economics of a solar roof work out for you depends on the state you live in, how much electricity you use, and the size of your house.

Take Lee, for example

Take our senior editor, Lee Hutchinson, for example. He’s got a 2,600-square-foot house outside of Houston. Using Tesla’s solar roof calculator, he found that a Tesla-brand roof would cost him… $99,100 to install (the calculator estimated solar tiling for 3,700 square feet of roof, which Lee chose not to edit due to the fact that some of his roof has gables and angles that will add square footage to the total calculation).

That price was without adding a $7,000 Powerwall, which Tesla initially recommended. That’s expensive on its own, and with a $180-per-month-on-average electricity bill, Lee isn’t burning through enough electricity during the day to justify the cost. With a few exceptions (including Austin), most utilities in Texas don’t permit net metering, so he can’t sell any excess energy back to the grid. And while many households with smaller roofs or higher energy bills might expect to recoup the cost of a solar installation over 30 years, Tesla’s calculator says installing a roof on Lee’s house would actually cost him $41,000 over 30 years.

Lee noted that his house only cost about $200,000 originally, so, on first impression, he was concerned that adding an extra $100,000 on to that cost would raise his property taxes—especially in Texas, where property taxes tend to be higher due to the fact that the state doesn’t collect income tax (Lee’s are around four percent). He was also concerned that an increased property value would raise insurance premiums as well.

Tesla’s calculator noted that Lee could expect a $23,500 federal investment tax credit, but that’s deducted from income tax at the end of the year. Without some special financing, it wouldn’t help soften that perceived initial outlay.

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