The main output from Elon Musk's solar roof, so far, has been news articles, rather than, say, electricity.
GTM reporters and a slew of guest contributors have investigated the price, technology and necessity of Tesla's proposed integrated solar roof. Some have suggested it could change the way homes are built and powered. Others have claimed that it's just a cynical marketing ploy to take the heat off of SolarCity and give Wall Street a product it might understand.
But another possible result of Tesla's marketing campaign is that it activates entrepreneurs to develop solar roofing products and enter the market with potentially better, more competitive solar roofs.
That's what self-funded Forward Labs, with its three employees, is attempting.
GTM spoke with the startup's CEO Zach Taylor last week. Taylor emphasized the significance of being raised "in a construction family," and his professional background is in construction and roofing.
The company's product is a raised seam metal roof, and it is targeting those looking to replace their roof, as well as those looking to design and build a new home, plus new-construction professionals. As a replacement, the new solar roof is meant to substitute a sloped, shingled roof that's over 15 years old. The firm has started taking preorders for its solar roofing system for installation in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The CEO claims that the system includes several features that differentiate it from conventional solar systems and other solar roofs. (Guess who he's referring to?)
The construction is "a five-layer build -- we've got glass, our optics, the cells, of course, and the encapsulant -- and all of that goes into a metal frame that's made at the factory. So it's not something that's built on site; it's not an afterthought. It's completely integrated." The top layers are constructed over a galvanized metal form-factor that appears "nearly identical to the non-solar portions of the roof."
This contrasts sharply with Tesla's design, which Taylor describes as "the wrong thing for the right reason." He explains: "It's wrong to devalue people's houses with something that doesn't look good. It's wrong to put holes in roofs; it's wrong to go to war with homeowner associations; and it's wrong to try to ram something down people's throats that they don't want," he said. But he described the ultimate goal of reducing carbon emissions as "the right reason."
Construction and specs
The standing-seam-style solar roof comes in eight colors and has been installed at beta sites in New York. The system is passively cooled via an air gap below the panels.
“We use more affordable materials than our competitors and employ standard manufacturing processes," said the CEO. "The roof's installation process is simple and quick -- we can install our system in half the time that other companies can."
The modular element of the Forward Labs PV roof is a bit larger than a standard solar panel and incorporates silicon solar cells and module level electronics. Taylor claims that panel efficiency is "in line with high-efficiency monocrystalline solar panels."
"The panels are going to be very simple to replace -- it's as easy as popping out a broken one out and putting a replacement panel in. In fact, the process is easier than replacing today’s standard solar panels," said Taylor. "We're able to make use of a tremendous amount of already-existing solar manufacturing equipment."
So how much does it cost?
The CEO was forthcoming about price. He said that $8.50 per square foot is applied to every square foot of the roof. And $3.25 per watt is added to the roofing portions that will be solar powered.
PowerScout performed an analysis on Tesla's solar roof pricing and found "an attributable price of $4.75 per watt to the electricity generation function of the Solar Roof."
GTM's Stephen Lacey recently divined the cost of a Tesla roof based on an online calculator: "According to Tesla, the product will cost $21.85 per square foot for an average American home -- making it competitive with standard tile, metal or slate roofs."
A typical re-roofing process for a standard shingle roof from the likes of Home Depot ranges from $3.00 per square foot to $6.50 per square foot on a roof that's expected to last about 30 years, according to Taylor.
In Forward Labs' case, the entire roof benefits from the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit, he added. "Although the entire roof doesn't produce power, it’s treated as part of the system, just as mounting is part of a standard solar array and included as part of the 30 percent credit. Tesla has led on this interpretation, and we're planning on being under the same final definition."
The conservative construction industry
So how do people in the construction and roofing trade feel about solar?
Taylor answers with a cautionary tale: "I'll give you a great example. In the 1950s, when the circular saw was first invented, if you walked down to a construction site with a circular saw, you were chased off -- because people in the construction industry liked the way that things were done and that's how they've always been done. They're very much traditionalists in the construction industry. So we're really going against the grain by introducing a new roofing system, turning roofers into electricians and electricians into roofers."
"But we're more focused on what consumers want, and we're finding that consumers are very interested in solar roofing, whether or not the construction industry is open to that," he said. "We're looking at a 7- to 8-year return on investment and faster installation time -- 2 to 3 days rather than 5 to 7 days -- and, in my opinion, and a better looking roof."
"I'm trying not to make too many comparisons directly to Tesla," Taylor added. "But I can say that we do have the most cost-effective roof in the market with the highest rate of return on investment -- and that's what homeowners have been seeking."