Game Changer: Musk’s Vision of Indie Solar

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Naysayers love to predict the downfall of Elon Musk. Don’t hold your breath.

“No One Saw Tesla’s Solar Roof Coming.” Bloomberg’s Tom Randall reported today that Tesla’s new solar roof was not anything like the predictions that have been flying around the tech news websites. Some thought it might be a system comprised of large standing-seam panels, like those in development by Forward Labs, or some variation on the solar shingles that came and went earlier in the 2000s. It is neither. Tesla’s solar roof system is everything solar shingles were not; tough and beautiful.

The panels are designed to mimic the look of a slate or tile roof, and all eye-witness reports agree that they are attractive and indistinguishable from other high-end roofing products. In his roll-out presentation, Musk claims that the Tesla roofing system is competitive with other premium roofing products- plus the price of electricity. Musk says the tempered glass is “tough as steel,” and can be equipped with heating elements to melt snow in colder climates. “It’s never going to wear out,” Musk said, “It’s made of quartz. It has a quasi-infinite lifetime.” Another shocking claim is that current prototypes that Tesla engineers are working will reduce the efficiency of the underlying solar cell by only 2 percent.

tesla-solar-roof-1280x392Along with the roll-out of the solar roofing products came the unveiling of the Powerwall 2 as well as the Powerpack 2. The Powerwall 2 (Tesla’s residential/small business storage system) has specs much superior to it’s predecessor, bringing it well into the realm of commercial viability with increased storage and reduced price. PLUS… the biggest feature that is being overlooked by many reports– the Powerwall 2 includes an onboard inverter, made by Tesla in their mega-factory.screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-24956-pm_large

For utility-scale customers, the updated Powerpack system includes a new energy module and power electronics, as well as twice the energy density of its predecessor, or 200 kilowatt-hours. In addition, the new Powerpack also sports a new, in-house designed and manufactured inverter, which Tesla says is “the lowest cost, highest efficiency and highest power density utility-scale inverter on the market.”

As is the case with most of Musk’s big product roll-outs, at this point there is a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. The news that Tesla building their inverters in-house is huge, and yet very little is known about them. Specs on the roofing system look good, but the details and price are still fuzzy.  For Musk fans, this lack of detail is excusable in the wake of Musk’s unrelenting optimism and dedication to disrupting the status quo. However, not everyone is willing to get on board with team Musk. Some critics don’t see the beauty in the Tesla trifecta of solar generation, energy storage, and electric transportation.

Business Insider, who predicted Musk’s “Epic Failure” last summer, can’t resist throwing buckets of cold water when it comes to Tesla. In their report on the new Tesla solar roof, they point to the fact that the residential roofing market is relatively small compared to the commercial market. They even pull out this tired solar boogeyman:

“For what it’s worth, the last buzzy, innovative company in the solar space was the ill-fated Solyndra, which captured a lot of attention in Silicon Valley for a revolutionary solar design, but which also went bankrupt in 2011 amid charges of favoritism from the Obama administration. (Those charges were debatable.) And Solyndra’s focus was commercial rooftops — large-scale installations bought by companies that could afford Solyndra’s product.”

Over at Forbes, Ellen R Wald get’s the award for saddest attempt to dismiss Tesla’s innovation, where she writes:

“When this alternative energy revolution comes, we will know it – and no subsidies or tax breaks will be necessary to prop it up. When innovation truly works, it speaks for itself. Until then, Tesla’s new solar roofs, while aesthetically stunning and technologically sexy, cannot match the reliability of nuclear and fossil fuels. The old energy powers have nothing to fear – for now.

I’m not sure what fracked oil-shale rock Ms. Wald has been hiding under for the last 10 years, but her dismissive attitude is one that is indicative of so many veterans of the fossil fuel industry when confronted with cognitive dissonance. State the obvious, avoid talking about massive government supports and externalized costs of fossil fuels, deny the evidence and downplay the significance of the facts presented to you.

Both of these pedestrian views toward Tesla’s announcement illustrate the basic problem that is created in utility markets when innovation is stifled by government sanctioned monopolies. Innovators don’t serve markets, they create markets. Whether or not they like what they see in Musk’s vision of distributed, independent clean energy, the market is growing. Fast.

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