Tesla transforms into an energy company with new solar roofs

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Tesla last Friday made a major announcement with solar manufacturer Solarcity about a collaboration on new solar panels.

The announcement was directly about a new joint product: solar roof tiles designed to incorporate energy generation into the roof itself as opposed to later installing unsightly aftermarket panels. Indirectly, however, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s presentation was a discussion on the future of Tesla and its role quickly becoming less and less tethered to its beginning as a luxury electric carmaker.

This shift has been bubbling out of Tesla for months. Last July, Tesla Motors changed its URL from teslamotors.com to tesla.com with no announcement. Those in the tech world wondered whether the time signified this change, weighing the possibility that Tesla might be moving into markets other than vehicles. Sure enough, the next day came with Musk confirming that Tesla was no longer a car company but rather an energy company.

Two weeks later, Tesla held the official opening of the Tesla Gigafactory 1, its new manufacturing facility for batteries in northern Nevada. As the largest building by area in the world, the Gigafactory’s production capacity greatly outweighs what Tesla currently needs to produce for its cars. Most assumed that excess batteries would be sold to outside companies, possibly including competing electric automakers.

However, Tesla showed another use for its batteries with a new product for homes: the Tesla Powerwall, a large battery array designed to store energy generated by solar panels during the day so it can be used overnight. The Powerwall was announced in late 2015, but full production has been dependent on the completion of the Gigafactory.

Another move toward the ideal of being an energy company came as Tesla and Solarcity announced a prospective merger in August, with a vote by shareholders from both companies set to occur on November 17. Tesla Motors would have had no need for a solar panel manufacturer, but Tesla as an energy company sees solar as the future of electricity production and would like to position itself to create products based on solar technology. This leads to where Tesla found itself on Friday when Musk presented his most direct exposition of the company’s long-term goals.

Musk began his presentation, a relatively small event on an elaborate suburban neighborhood-style set on the lots of Universal Studios in Los Angeles, with a discussion about the severity of climate change and Tesla’s role in preventing further damage to the planet. But the concrete purpose of this presentation hit in a very casual and unexpected way, not even a minute into the talk when Musk casually remarked, “The houses around you are all solar houses.” Eventually, after continuing to discuss climate change, Musk gets to the full purpose of the solar panels.

Musk describes Tesla as positioning itself to control three major categories of energy: generation, storage and transport. Tesla’s goal as a company was always to reduce the effects of climate change, but it has now begun laying out a more concrete plan for this process than making electric cars.

The vehicles produced by Tesla over the last few years are the beginning of Tesla’s plan to control the transport use of energy. Similarly, its announcements on Friday show its movement into energy generation and storage. Musk describes a future where a person might have a home powered by solar energy where they use a Tesla roof to generate the energy, a Tesla Powerwall to store it and a Tesla vehicle to use it. This is the route Musk’s company saw for itself when changing its name from Tesla Motors to simply Tesla. It wants to help control climate change through more than automobiles.

The solar panels will become available at some point in 2017, according to Musk. He claims they have 98 percent of the efficiency of traditional solar panels, and will be cheaper to install than the average roof. He anticipates that the glass covering of the roof might be able to be engineered in a way that actually makes the roof more efficient than traditional panels. The roof will be less breakable than current roofing tiles, as well.

Tesla intends to use this product to help complete its merger with Solarcity, as well. Musk says products like this will not continue if the merger is unsuccessful. Tesla plans to continue to produce cars with its Model 3, planned to ship late next year.

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