Can Elon Musk's SolarRoof Really Save the World?

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Can Elon Musk's SolarRoof Really Save the World?

It was almost exactly two years ago when Tesla CEO Elon Musk casually took to a stage and demonstrated how he was going to save the world. The problem of the uncontrollable rise of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was the problem Musk was going to tackle—the same one that world governments, nonprofits, and companies all over the world have been unable to even take a swing at. It was a clear path forward for renewable energy that actually could work.

The idea was simple: combine solar panel technology with Tesla’s new highly efficient, low-cost batteries. The Powerwall is the home version, which makes the solar energy gathered during the day to power a household for 24 hours a day. It’s a simple 10 kWh battery (that can be attached inside or outside your home) and are made to replace those crusty old batteries that made solar power so inefficient.

More than that, Tesla also introduced Powerpacks, which were big enough to be used for utility purposes. This year the company has already announced large projects such as taking on powering the island of Kauai and the Southern California Edison. With both localized power generation and utility power covered, Tesla’s take on the battery has been a gamechanger.

But as I said when I first reported on Tesla’s event back in 2015, it was only solving half of the problem. Just like those old batteries, solar panels were also clunky, expensive, inefficient, and seriously ugly.

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That’s why two years later, Elon Musk took the stage and proposed his vision of fixing the second half of the equation. After reexplaining the desperate situation our world is in, Musk went to introduce his audience to the Solar Roof. What the engineers at Tesla have done is integrate solar cells into the individual glass tiles of the roof, of which the company is currently offering three different styles.

Musk said that for these Solar Roofs to work, they needed to be beautiful, affordable, and fully integrated in a seamless way. He joked about how much people care about their homes and how all three elements needed to be in place for it to work, but it really is true. While we certainly won’t know this until installations begin happening this summer, the company certainly seems to have found a way to address all three of these elements.

The houses that Musk showed off at the event, which had the Solar Roofs installed on, looked fantastic. The glass has a slightly modern look, though it’s nothing that anyone would make heads turn. Most importantly, it looks about a hundred times better than the solar panels currently out on the market. In many ways, it seems like the same approach the company has taken with the Tesla cars.

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However, the Solar Roofs are really only meant for new houses, or for homeowners who are replacing their roofs entirely. Musk stated that around five million new roofs are built each year in the US, hinting that if Solar Roofs were slowly implemented onto these new homes, you’d have a dramatic change in the amount of solar power that was being collected. For those looking for adding solar energy to their current roofs, Tesla is also offering more traditional Solar Panels (though for what it’s worth, they look quite a bit better than the average solar panel as well).

As for price and efficiency, Tesla says it’ll cost $21.85 per square foot for an average American home. A solar roof covering 40 percent of the average-sized American home would generate 10 percent to 20 percent more electricity than a standard solar system. The Powerwall 2 costs $5,500 and can power a standard four-bedroom house for an entire day. For a detailed look at the cost of Solar Roof on your own home, Tesla has a calculator that can estimate what’ll be including things like installation.

It’s slightly cheaper than most roofs on the market—and it just happens to have solar technology built in. On top of that, it’s more efficient than the standard solar systems out on the market as well.

But Musk’s ambition with local power generation is not to necessarily to empower people to go off the grid. He makes the point that if you transition all of your home’s energy to electric, that will triple the need for electricity in each house. That’s why Tesla has both the utility and local sources covered with the Powerwall and Powerpack.

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The company’s mission statement is “to accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future by creating products that are so compelling, there is no alternative.”

The reason why Tesla’s approach gives me hope is that Musk understands implicitly how technology and culture evolves.

“The key is to make having solar desirable,” he said at the event. This is where Musk is right on target—it’s the key to actually getting any kind of particular piece of technology into the hands of the public. It’s mission statement isn’t to build expensive cars or make ultra-technological roofs, but like what Tesla did with its cars, the company didn’t just build a better way of gathering solar power on a local level, it built a better roof. In the world we live in, that’s what it takes to create real change on a wide scale.

It’s not going to happen overnight—and it probably won’t happen exclusively by Tesla. But for the first time, it’s no longer all that hard to imagine our world in a place where it’s no longer addicted to burning fossil fuels for energy.