Tesla’s Solar Roof Comes to My Oakland Neighborhood
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk first unveiled his concept for a Solar Roof in October 2016. At the time, he was trying to sell investors on the idea of Tesla acquiring SolarCity, a company where he was chairman and his cousin was the chief executive officer. I’ve written several stories about the controversial acquisition, the shareholder lawsuit, the first customers to get the Solar Roof, and Musk’s fixation with the product and its rollout.
Now someone in my neighborhood in Oakland, California, is getting a Tesla Solar Roof on their house. When I can walk past the project and see its progress every day, it makes Tesla’s foray into this business feel much more real – and nudges me to contemplate how the solar division might figure in Musk’s empire over the long haul.
For years, the rule of thumb was that the more electricity you used, the more it made sense to switch to solar power. In the San Francisco Bay Area, solar was more common in the hotter, outlying suburbs where residents had high energy use thanks to larger houses, central air conditioning units and swimming pools. It wasn’t that common to see solar panels in Oakland, where the Pacific Ocean fog typically acts as a natural coolant and many dwellings don’t have air conditioning.
But the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, and homeowners are choosing to go solar for other reasons, too. Tesla wants to be their one-stop shop for clean energy: an electric car in the driveway, a Solar Roof, and a Tesla home battery called a Powerwall to tie it all together.
“I think long-term Tesla Energy will be roughly the same size as Tesla Automotive,” Musk said during an earnings call in July 2020. “The energy business is collectively bigger than the automotive business.”
On Tuesday morning, as I rode my bike to the nearby BART station, I passed about eight guys standing around outside the house, getting ready for the day’s work. I’m not revealing the address out of respect for the homeowner’s privacy, but this is a small house, roughly 1,100 square feet in size. Big crates full of roofing material, marked with the Tesla logo, were parked on the street in front. Some of the shipping labels on the cardboard boxes indicated they’d come from Buffalo, New York — where Tesla’s Solar Glass roofing tiles are made — while other shipping labels noted boxes that had come from China.
Tesla cars are so common in California that it’s no longer unusual to see one. But a Solar Roof project will get attention. It’s still a relative novelty, and like any construction project, it’s a hive of noisy activity.
For years, the existential question about Tesla was: did consumers really want to buy electric cars? And could Tesla make them in high enough volume before going bankrupt? The answers turned out to be yes and yes.
Now Musk’s company faces a new set of questions, including: can Tesla, which has sold many people cars, sell them on a full home ecosystem? Despite high costs, hassles with permits, supply chain snarls, a labor market squeeze and long installation times, demand apparently is, dare I say, through the roof.
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