Inside the Slow, Yet ‘Incredible’ Installation of a $78,000 Tesla Solar Roof

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, a look at the slow, yet ‘incredible’ installation of a $78,000 Tesla solar roof

I needed a new roof anyway,” says Winka Dubbeldam, standing outside her house in the Springs, a hamlet on the east end of Long Island. And as long as she was replacing her roof, Dubbeldam, a Dutch-born architect, planned to add photovoltaic panels, to reduce carbon emissions and her electric bills. But the solar power companies she called expected her to apply for building permits, as well as for the rebates and credits that would make the job affordable, herself. “It was dizzying how much paperwork I would have had to do,” says Dubbeldam, who runs the New York firm Archi-Tectonics and chairs the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. She was also concerned that the panels would mar the appearance of her modest, Cape Cod-style house, which she bought in 2014 and uses mostly on weekends.  

Then Dubbeldam heard about Tesla’s Solar Roof, a system of small photovoltaic panels that look like glass roof tiles. Intrigued by the elegance of the product—in both concept and appearance—she paid Tesla a $100 deposit in late 2020. Then nothing happened for almost a year. “It was zombie land. I had no idea who’s doing what, or what the time frame was. And there was nobody to really call.” Frustrated, she says, “I almost canceled because I thought, ‘These people are not real.’”

They became real in the summer of 2021, when the company began planning her installation, a process that included using a drone to see if trees were shading too much of her roof and figuring out how many tiles would be needed. The north side of Dubbeldam’s roof slopes steeply, and Tesla said she would have to put a different roof there. “But I wasn’t interested in having two different roofs. So we discussed it and that took months,” she says. Eventually Tesla agreed to take on the difficult task of mounting its tiles—in this case “blanks” that lack photovoltaics—on a roof with a close to a 50% grade. She says that when Tesla agreed to her requests, it didn’t know she was a program chair or that she might someday talk to a reporter. Next, a local crew arrived to remove her old roof. Unable to erect scaffolding around the house without destroying trees and shrubs, the workers used a cable system to get up and down. 

Then the Tesla team—eight men driving trucks emblazoned with the Tesla logo, she says—covered the top of the house with a proprietary membrane that provides insulation and waterproofing. Next they put down wooden strips to hold the glass tiles in place. Finally they installed the tiles themselves, making provisions for a skylight and various pipes and vents, and using special end pieces to give the edges of the roof a finished look. The job took nearly two weeks. (Tesla’s website says the average installation requires five to seven days.

Dubbeldam’s one disappointment is that she asked Tesla for extra insulation but didn’t get it. Otherwise, she says, Tesla responded to every request, including finding the right clips to hang her gutters from after the old clips went missing. In fact, the workers installed the roof so carefully that she asked for only a few small adjustments—amazing, she says, given her profession and perfectionism. Dubbeldam’s recent projects include seven buildings totaling 2 million square feet for the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, (postponed until this month).

Tesla also hung several devices on the west wall of the house: a pair of its Powerwall batteries and an inverter, which turns the direct current coming from the roof into alternating current. The batteries fill up on sunny days and then power the house in cloudy weather and at night.

The total price of Dubbeldam’s roof, she says, was $78,000, about $20,000 more than she was quoted for a new roof without solar panels. “For the amount of money they charge it’s incredible how much work they did,” she says.

She may have gotten a bargain. John Sheldon, director of new business capabilities at Renu Energy Solutions, which installs Tesla Solar Roofs in North and South Carolina, says, “There were some early adopters who got a great price point. The price from Tesla has gone up. The Solar Roof is a six-figure product—you can anticipate $150,000 to $250,000 now.” Tesla, he adds, changed its pricing model “because they weren’t counting all the minute details of different roofs. They weren’t prepared for that.”

In an April 2021 earnings call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said: “If a roof has a lot of protuberances, or if the roof—sort of the core structure of the roof is rotted out or is not strong enough to hold the Solar Roof, then the cost can be double, sometimes three times what our initial quotes were.” Dubbeldam says she was never asked to pay more than the amount she initially agreed to.

The drawn out process may help explain why in the seven years since Tesla introduced its Solar Roof, the number of completed jobs has failed to meet the company’s expectations. Musk, who got into the solar panel business when Tesla acquired SolarCity in 2016, said in a first quarter 2020 earnings call that by 2021, “We want to have at least 1,000 Solar Roof install teams, taking a week or perhaps a little less than a week to do an install, which gets you 1,000 a week roof installations. We see demand is good, production is good, so it’s really all about the install.”

But according to a study by Wood Mackenzie, a global consulting firm focused on the energy sector, Solar Roof installations averaged just 21 a week in 2022. Altogether, Tesla has installed only 3,000 solar roofs since it unveiled the product in 2016, according to the March 2023 report. Tesla tweeted that the report was “incorrect by a large margin” but offered no details.

Musk said in April 2021 that the solar roof installation process had become a choke point for the company. “We basically made some significant mistakes in assessing the difficulty of certain roofs,” he said. “Some roofs are literally two or three times easier than other roofs, so you just can’t have a one-size-fits-all situation.” 

Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Rebates and a $38,000 tax credit reduced Dubbeldam’s final cost to about $30,000. And she expects to recoup that amount quickly. Her electric bill in May 2021—pre-Tesla—was $606. Her bill for May 2023 was under $20. Dubbeldam, who declined to say how much she paid for the 2,500-square-foot house, did worry that if the solar roof increased its value her property taxes would rise. But in most of New York state, solar systems won’t raise tax assessments for at least another 15 years.

For Dubbeldam, power outages used to mean running her noisy, gas-guzzling emergency generator. Electronic devices in the house would start to beep, and some, she says, were damaged by surges when the power came back on. Now, she says, “If there’s an outage I don’t even know it.” 

There is something else that Dubbeldam—who came to the U.S. 30 years ago to study but, she quips, “forgot to go home”—appreciates about Tesla’s approach: The company completed all the paperwork required to secure her building permit, state rebate and federal tax credit. “All I had to do was sign a few forms,” Dubbeldam says. In addition, other solar installers she had spoken to expected her to waive her right to sue if her roof leaked after the solar panels were in place. She remembers thinking, “You’re going to walk all over my roof, and cut into it, and drill into it, and then if it leaks it’s my responsibility. No way.”

Tesla provides a 10-year warranty covering its entire system (including “roof mounting and leaks”). Knowing that solar panels lose their effectiveness over time, Tesla also promises to replace a roof if its capacity drops below 80 percent of its initial capacity within 25 years. That could be a costly guarantee. As Tesla noted in its 2021 annual report: “While we have performed extensive internal testing on our products and features, we currently have a limited frame of reference by which to evaluate their long-term quality, reliability, durability and performance characteristics.”

Last year, at a meeting of the Netherlands-America Foundation, a New York organization nicknamed The Dutch Club, Dubbeldam met Dr. Willem Scheele, a retired physician and biotech executive who lives in Winchester, Mass., a Boston suburb. When they started talking, she discovered that he, too, had a Tesla Solar Roof. Though his house is larger than hers, Scheele and Dubbeldam had very similar experiences. He paid Tesla a $100 deposit in 2019. He had to wait until June 2021 for the installation, and during that time he had nobody to call. “You have to commit to something you’ve never had in your hands,” he says. “You don’t know for sure what it’s going to look like until they put it in your driveway.”

And there were a few complications: The installer wanted to use asphalt shingles on the cupola of Scheele’s house. Echoing Dubbeldam, he said, “No, it has to be uniform.” The company agreed to the request. Then a local contractor came to remove the old roof and prepare the house for the new one. “There was a little miscommunication between Tesla and the local roofing company,” he says. As a result, the local company brought mis-sized skylights, leading to delays. 

“At the end of the day,” he said, “the result is absolutely phenomenal and I’m proud of the fact that I generate 4.5 megawatts a year.” That is about 40% of what it takes to run his house and his hot tub, and to power his Audi e-tron SUV.

His only problem is that, unlike Dubbeldam, he waited two years, he says, for Tesla to finish the paperwork that will allow him to receive a state rebate.

Scheele and Dubbeldam occasionally check the Tesla app on their phones. It shows them how much electricity their roofs are making, how much their houses are using, and how much is left in their Powerwall batteries. With her house generating power and her compact two-year-old Tesla Y charging in her driveway, Dubbeldam says, “it’s going up and going down. It’s like a game.” 

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 16th, 2023 at 3:43 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

About This Blog And Its Author
As potential uses for building and parking lot roofspace continue to grow, unique opportunities to understand and profit from this trend will emerge. Roof Options is committed to tracking the evolving uses of roof estate – spanning solar power, rainwater harvesting, wind power, gardens & farms, “cooling” sites, advertising, apiculture, and telecom transmission platforms – to help unlock the nascent, complex, and expanding roofspace asset class.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy. Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation. He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”