Tesla’s Buffalo Solar Tiles: As Hot As They Seem?

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by Paula Mints

In August, Tesla (TSLA) announced that production of its roof tiles at its not-yet-a giga-factory in Buffalo New York would be delayed until late in 2017. Wait … it is late in 2017. Tesla indicated that production on the tiles was continuing at its 25-MWp pilot scale facility in Fremont, California. The Fremont facility was the former home of the dearly departed Silevo. On August 31 Tesla announced that it was now manufacturing solar cells at its facility in Buffalo and indicated it would have 2-GWp of cell capacity eventually. During Tesla’s earnings call Mr. Musk showed pictures of two rooftops with the company’s solar tiles installed on them but offered no production data, something he could have easily done. One of the pictures was of the tiles on Mr. Musk’s own roof.

Screen capture of video showing strength of Tesla’s solar tiles from Tesla website.

As to the solar tiles, Mr. Musk could clear up the confusion about its tiles by showing production data from his own roof. Back to the announced production at its Buffalo facility … just few months ago equipment was being delivered. Before commercial production can begin pilot scale production must – seriously, must – take place. In the August 31 announcement no mention of current capacity was made and employment described as “hundreds of employees” is not descriptive.

  • In 2014 SolarCity announced its acquisition of startup crystalline developer Silevo as well as its plans for a 1-GWp cell/module facility in Buffalo New York. At the time SolarCity said production would begin in Q1 2016
  • In 2015 SolarCity leased the former Solyndra space in Fremont, California for Silevo production and did the entire US solar industry a favor by taking down the Solyndra sign.
  • In 2015 manufacturing at the New York facility was delayed until early 2017
  • In 2016, after announcing the delay and producing nothing, SolarCity announced a BIPV product – what is now referred to as the Tesla solar tiles
  • In late 2016 Tesla received board approval for its corporate nepotism and Mr. Musk acquired his cousin’s company
  • In October 2016 Tesla demonstrated its solar tile roof by basically, showing people that it was on top of a house without showing any production data
  • In August 2017 Tesla announced production in Buffalo would begin in late 2017
  • BUT WAIT! On August 31 Tesla announced that production in Buffalo had begun

There is a lot of precedent for announcing future manufacturing capacity building and for re ferring to the future as if it were a fait accompli. In 2014 SolarCity announced to great fanfare its plans for the largest solar manufacturing facility in the US, a1-GWp c-Si facility in New York.

Many industry participants and observers took the announcement as proof of a US manufacturing renaissance.

Blast from the past: In April 2011 GE bought PrimeStar, a 30-MWp, pre-commercial CdTe manufacturer based in Colorado for $600-million. In its announcement GE stated that they would build the nation’s largest manufacturing facility, a 400-MWp CdTe facility in Colorado. In 2013, after failing to commercialize PrimeStar’s CdTe technology, GE sold the startup’s technology assets to First Solar in a stock deal valued at $82-million. The moral of this example is that though planning for the future is crucial, announcing these plans as fact is most often a
huge mistake.

Misleading PR driven solar news has trained readers to expect a constant stream of advancements and dulled the senses to the true nature of advancement. Technology breakthroughs are, as previously indicated, years and potentially decades from idea to prototype to champion result to pilot scale production to commercial competitiveness. Advancement is driven by repeatability that is, doing the same experiment or test again and again and again and again until an average result is achieve and can be repeated – again and again.

For example, in the mid-2000s companies such as Applied Materials, Oerlikon and others tried to leapfrog over the historic development timeline by offering turnkey manufacturing so that new entrants eager to make a buck in the photovoltaic industry could avoid years of trial and
error and jump almost immediately into commercial production. Years of announcements later the turnkey PV manufacturing model is rarely mentioned.

Paula Mints is founder of SPV Market Research, a classic solar market research practice focused on gathering data through primary research and providing analyses of the global solar industry.  You can find her on Twitter @PaulaMints1 and read her blog here.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have to wonder about Tesla. There are already other companies building solar roof panels who are pairing with home builders and shingle manufacturers to provide an excellent package. The company (Soltech Energy) is not as flashy as tesla, but they are actually doing something, and making money in the process. Seems that the only reason Tesla is so keen on PR is because they need to attract huge amounts of capital to cover the rapid rate at which they spend money.

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