Dear Elon, Lyndon, Peter and JB,

You launched a satellite and landed a rocket on a drone ship last weekend. You're hoping to construct alien dreadnought-inspired factories and the world's best EVs. And you've created a multibillion-dollar residential solar machine at a phenomenally fast pace.

All that might soon seem like child's play compared to commercializing an integrated solar roofing product.

We reported on your quarterly earnings last week. In addition to the numbers (and the occasionally awkward family dynamic), you kept referring back to the new roofing product you guys came up with at the pre-burn party.

Here's what you said.

Elon Musk
  • "It's a solar roof as opposed to a module on a roof."
  • "I think this is really a fundamental part of achieving a differentiated product strategy where you have a -- it's not a beautiful roof, that it is a solar roof, it's not a thing on a roof, it is the roof."
  • "Which is quite a difficult engineering challenge, and not something that is available really anywhere else that is at all good."
  • "We don't want to show all of our cards right now, but I think people are going to be really excited about what they see. And the cool thing is that it doesn't cannibalize the existing business, because you've got two classes of customers -- customers... [whose] roof is nearing end-of-life and customers where they've just put in a new roof."
  • "And this is why it's really important to do manufacturing in-house, because it's panels that control the aesthetics...and you really want the roof custom-made to the individual customer as a kit and then sent to the delivery team to get installed."
Lyndon Rive:
  • "It's just addressing a really big market segment -- just in the U.S., there [are] 5 million new roofs installed every year, and then this is a product...primarily focused on the new roof market."
Peter Rive
  • "We're going to be making a pretty interesting product, and I'm excited...to reveal to you all at some point, but it is not just your typical module, it is both very efficient and it looks really, really good."
  • "a roofing-integrated product" 
Elon Musk:
  • "What if we can offer you a roof that looks way better than a normal roof? What if we could offer you a roof that lasts far longer than a normal roof? Now, it's a different ballgame."

BIPV bloodbath

I write to you as an observer of the solar market for more than a decade, and as someone who had a role in a building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) project some years ago.

Over the last decade, we've eulogized or watched struggle a number of solar roofing and BIPV companies. I'm including solar roofing, solar windows and flexible roll-on solar panels in this category.

Here are some of the casualties.

There are still a number of companies fighting the integrated solar fight -- but no runaway commercial volume successes yet.

  • Solarmass roof tiles "designed to be installed by a roofer" but without flashing or frames 
  • Solaria's BIPV windows
  • Atlantis Energy's solar tiles
  • MiaSolé (flexible CIGS) acquired by China's Hanergy
  • Redwood Renewables (PV roof tiles)
  • SunTegra's roof integrated panel includes ventilation. The firm works with roofers, remodelers, and homebuilders and claims to have installed over 4,000 panels to date on 30 to 40 buildings nationwide. The firm's CEO said, "We’re within the window of the premium people are willing to pay for the aesthetics of integrated options. A lot of people don't love the way panels look," according to reporting from GTM's Julian Spector.
  • Lumeta's peel-and-stick solar panels
  • AltEnergy is a BIPV project developer
  • ArteZanos' integrated solar tiles
  • Heliatek's OSC technology focused on windows and facades
  • CertainTeed Solar is working on two types of roof-integrated products, including shingles

It's not an engineering problem

When asked whether the green SolarCity vans would also be offering roofing services in a few years, you spoke of keeping a few secrets to yourselves for the time being. That permits me to pontificate, unencumbered by facts.

Reaching through to the end customer for an integrated PV roof in the new homes market is not a semiconductor, mechanical or financial engineering problem. You're looking to drive a completely new type of product through the very conservative roofing channel -- and that's a daunting marketing challenge. Traditional solar modules on racks may be less than aesthetically perfect, but they have a distribution channel and technical expertise.

If you're going after new homes, then you presumably team with new-home builders like Lennar, KB Homes or Meritage. And as long as you're building the roof, perhaps you'll follow your traditional, massively vertically integrated strategy and you'll become homebuilders.

PV panels and roofing have very different roles, and I've observed that combining the two compromises both at a premium cost. 

A commenter suggested, "It's one of those ideas, like solar roadways, that seems inspiring and attracts the imagination, but has no practical benefit."