House with Tesla Solar Roof installed.

Horizons

Tesla Solar Roof: One year on, an owner reveals what it’s really like to live on solar

Elon Musk wants to make your roof your own mini-grid.

In 1954, Bell Labs revealed an invention that would change the future of clean energy: The world’s first known practical silicon solar cell.

The New York Times reportedly hailed it as “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams.”

That dream — to use the energy of the Sun to create electricity — is still unrealized, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress.

All you need to do is take a walk through a city, and you can see them everywhere: solar panels powering homes, offices, and municipal buildings. Since these panels made their way onto roofs in the 1970s, new data from the Solar Energy Industries Association suggests that installed residential capacity in the U.S. equates to 23 gigawatts in 2021. That accounts for nearly 20 percent of the U.S.’s total solar energy generated.

Today, Tesla’s Solar Roof is leading the charge with an innovation of its own: cutting out the middle step between building the roof and installing the solar panels. Tesla’s specially-designed tiles mean anyone can outfit their home with what looks like a typical (if a bit glossy) roof that provides the house with power.

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Tesla Solar Roof up close.Tesla

The roof tiles are limited in availability, which means Tesla Solar Roofs are unlikely to become as ubiquitous as the bulkier panels we see pasted onto roofs around the neighborhood. Some estimates put the cost of Solar Roofs tens of thousands of dollars above a similar, more conventional solar panel installation.

Tesla is noticeably tight-lipped about how many Solar Roofs it has sold. The company claims it has fitted solar energy systems on 400,000 roofs in the U.S., but does not reveal how many are Solar Roofs versus retrofit solar panels. Pew Research in 2019 found that six percent of U.S. homeowners have installed solar panels, and the Census Bureau found there were 83.5 million owner-occupied housing units at the end of 2021.

But the few people that do own a Solar Roof say it has changed their life — just like the New York Times predicted solar cells could.

“I would definitely recommend the Solar Roof,” Tomas Nochta tells Inverse. Nochta lives in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, works in the hospitality industry, and has a 1,175-square-foot roof with enough sunlight-harvesting tiles to generate 7.6 kilowatts of power — enough to power Nochta’s home.

“It looks fantastic!”

WHAT IS TESLA SOLAR ROOF?

Elon Musk’s Solar Roof was first unveiled in October 2016. Around two years later, Reuters reported that Tesla had only activated 12 roofs in California. Installations remained extremely limited in the U.S. until October 2019, when Tesla unveiled a tweaked version of the roof tiles to enable faster installation.

Ironically, CEO Elon Musk told an audience in 2019 that it would be the “year of the solar roof” — the year when solar deployments reached their lowest point since the roof’s launch.

In 2020, Musk claimed he wants Tesla’s energy business to expand from less than 10 percent of the company to 50 percent. Evidence suggests, however, that Tesla’s solar installs remain relatively limited.

Tesla’s solar deployments — which include its retrofit solar panels and the Solar Roof — in the fourth quarter of 2021 were effectively the same as the fourth quarter of 2020.

Tesla remains the second-largest residential solar installer in the U.S., behind first-placed Sunrun. Tesla’s 2021 total of 345 megawatts was an impressive 68 percent improvement over the previous year, but solar panel supplier Sunrun installed 792 megawatts of capacity that same year. Wood Mackenzie claims Sunrun accounts for 13 percent of the total residential solar market.

A chart depicting Tesla's solar deployments over the past year.Inverse

In April 2021, Tesla announced plans to raise roof prices based on a given installation’s complexity. Musk admitted the company made “significant mistakes” in assessing how hard it would be to install certain roofs in an earnings call that month.

Musk’s long-term vision for the future is one where it’s “odd” for a roof not to collect energy to power the building within.

But how does an early adopter feel about Tesla’s roof? We asked.

Tesla Solar Roof: How it all came together

In January 2021, Nochta switched on his new roof. His 1,175-square-foot roof has enough solar-harvesting tiles to generate 7.6 kilowatts of power. The Tesla Solar Roof uses a mix of solar tiles and dummy tiles; the latter used at the edge of the installation to enable teams to more easily cut edge tiles down to size and fit the roof seamlessly to the house.

Nochta first installed solar panels on his house in 2016, supplied by SolarCity. SolarCity merged with Tesla later that year.

The first installation was less than three kilowatts — not much energy, which meant the couple was using slightly more than they produced. But as the household grew to add children and parents, Nochta discovered it was surprisingly difficult to expand the existing solar panel system to add more capacity. The new panels would have to work as part of a dual system, with two inverters feeding into the house.

These inverters are vital for getting solar power into the home. As Energy.gov explains, they convert the panels’ direct current electricity — with a single voltage in one direction — into the alternating current used in homes where the voltage moves between positive and negative.

“I think the people hate me at Tesla.”

Nochta had “a couple of friends that do roofs” and they estimated it would cost $8,000 to $10,000 to replace the roof. Including new solar panels would cost another $10,000 to $15,000.

When Inverse checked Tesla’s retrofit solar panel website, these estimates seemed accurate. For a home in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, Tesla charges:

  • $10,128 for a 4.8-kilowatt solar panel installation
  • $20,256 for a 9.6-kilowatt installation
  • $11,000 for one Powerwall battery

A 9.6-kilowatt installation with a battery would come to $31,256 total. Still, Tesla’s website notes that customers could benefit from a $6,205 Federal Tax Credit, plus a $7,392 Solar Renewable Energy Credit that could bring the total cost down to as low as $17,659.

That figure was close to the amount Nochta had already guessed he would spend on a new roof — so he took the plunge.

“At that point, it’s just, don’t do it, just get a Solar Roof done,” Nochta says.

Nochta’s project came to $42,000, including $14,500 for battery storage. It may have been cheaper for Nochta to get a new roof and solar panels — but he’s satisfied with the final installation and doesn’t regret the purchase.

See a video of Nochta’s installation below:

Nochta is one of a slowly growing number of happy Solar Roof owners. Inverse also spoke with:

  • Amanda Tobler in California, who was an early adopter back in January 2018 with her 9.85-kilowatt roof
  • Jason Lassen in Wisconsin, whose 15.9-kilowatt roof braved the cold weather in early 2021
  • Tony Cho in Florida, whose giant 44-kilowatt installation went viral in December 2021
  • Richard and Beth Parrish’s California project in March 2022, which powered two Tesla electric vehicles

How to get Tesla’s Solar Roof

Nochta ordered his roof in July 2020, months after Musk announced new third-generation tiles that would enable faster installations. But Nochta says he also did “a lot of research” to try and move the project along.

“I was an asshole, I’ll tell you that!” he says. “I think the people hate me at Tesla.”

Nochta organized the permits for building the roof himself. He contacted people to get the correct permissions, chased up the utility company to get approval, and stayed home to ensure every inspection went smoothly. A previous contact from the utility company, who had helped with his 2016 installation, pitched in again to support Nochta’s mission.

The people at Tesla may hate him, but Nochta says a “super nice” employee from Tesla Solar also contacted him to see if he could help them get the project off the ground faster.

Nochta's install midway through.Tomas Nochta

The installation process took place over a couple of weeks in late 2020. It didn't start well: Nochta had planned to remove the skylight from his roof. But the installer’s plans retained the feature. The mistake would have reduced Nochta’s Solar Roof down to 7.07 kilowatts.

“I would advise every single person to stay home on the first day and look at the plans of the installer,” he says.

But by November 2020, the roof was fully installed. After another month of waiting for final approval from the utility company, Nochta switched on the roof in January 2021.

Tomas Nochta's roof fully completed.Tomas Nochta

Nochta says his roof has produced 8,148 kilowatt-hours of energy in his first year of usage — more than enough to cover the family’s energy usage, even with an electric vehicle.

But he still has to pay a $5 per month connection fee to keep his home on the grid, however — just in case.

“Our main reasons were to go green and use the Sun to produce our own electricity,” Nochta says. Objective achieved.

Nochta’s reality is fast becoming other Americans’ dreams. In a Pew Research report, 65 percent of U.S. adults in 2017 said the most important priority for addressing the country’s energy supply should be developing alternatives to coal, oil, and gas — like wind and solar. This was ranked above expanding production of existing sources like coal and gas.

In 2020, that figure had jumped from 65 percent to 79 percent of Americans who believe solar and wind — and other green alternatives — are the priority.

Musk said in 2019 that the goal of the Solar Roof was to “make roofs come alive.” With the surging interest in renewables, that vision might finally be just around the corner.

HORIZONS is an Inverse newsletter on the innovations of today that will shape the world of tomorrow. Forecast the future by signing up for free.

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