Elon Musk, Tesla, and the Solar Roof Tile Fraud: Update

There have been a few solar roof tile installs and changes in the story from Tesla since the Aug 2018 post, so it’s time for an update.

Nothing changes the original post’s conclusion that the flashy Oct 2016 PR announcement of the tiles on the set of Desperate Housewives was a sham, announcing a nonexistent product designed to induce Tesla shareholders to vote to allow Tesla to take over Solar City, a publicly traded solar company nearing bankruptcy that Elon Musk and his family part-owned. This was fraud on the other shareholders of Tesla, and enabled Musk and his family to avoid $billions in losses and a blow to his image that might well have made it harder for Tesla and SpaceX to raise investor money.

The Desperate Housewives demo was years before any profitable installations could possibly have occurred (if ever.) The fine line between overoptimistic hype and fraud was definitely crossed, saving Musk and family billions in losses.

Tesla statements in quarterly letters to shareholders show the usual Tesla backing away from aggressive (fraudulent if done with foreknowledge) introduction promises. Keep in mind that Tesla took $1,000 deposits from thousands of homeowners for these tiles in 2016 and 2017 before quietly instructing sales reps to downplay the tiles.

Solar Roof Tile Statements (from Reddit user Lacrewpandora)
Solar Roof Tile Statements (from Reddit user Lacrewpandora)

When stories in major media questioned the solar roof tiles (for example, “Tesla made a big deal out of its Solar Roof in 2016, but two years later it has barely shipped any” at CNBC), Tesla rushed to produce stories designed to counter them.

This slickly-produced official Tesla video purports to show solar roof tile mass production in the Buffalo Gigafactory 2.

I don’t doubt that Tesla could continue to burn cash by installing hundreds of solar roofs to keep the hype alive for another year, but the “look inside the Buffalo Gigafactory” video shows they are being hand-produced at great cost.

This Twitter thread discusses the first two customer installs, and this thread covers the third — all three major Tesla fans and promoters, all in California. So unless you consider the possibility all three are fake, the tiles have been made to work on roofs. Longevity of the tiles as a roof is probably excellent, similar to ceramic tile, but the long-term functioning of the solar power system might be more of a problem, with complex interconnects and electronics permanently installed under hot roof tiles. Offering a warranty similar to the best conventional solar panels (25 years) might add to the losses to be expected from the product in mass use.

The installs are said to take two weeks or more, using a crew of four or more — which adds up to at least 300 hours at something like $20/hr, or $6,000 for roofing labor alone, while a normal tile roof might take half that. Tesla uses its own work crews and has said nothing about allowing any other roofing or solar company to buy and install the product.

Tesla *could* spend hundreds of millions getting up to speed and driving costs down, but a continuous flow of new investors are required to fund it. The company has cut back on capex as it tries to make it through a cash flow crisis, and the solar tile project is another promise Elon Musk made but is hoping we all forget.

Solar roof tiles are inherently more complicated than panels, the interconnects will be expensive and failure-prone, and the house designs are constrained to particular roof angles and orientations to efficiently capture the sun. The tiles are inherently less efficient than single-purpose panels and their cost can only be justified for aesthetics on traditionally-styled buildings.

But once the solar roof tile hype had served its purpose of getting approval to bail out Solar City, it took on a life of its own and had to be maintained as part of the Visionary Elon plan. Comic-book Tesla hype raised stock price and ability to spend more investor money.

The solar roof tiles are still featured on Tesla’s web site, and after a laughably simplistic savings calculation there is still an option to send Tesla a $1,000 deposit. I had assumed they weren’t still taking deposits, but Twitter user Justin (@Trumpery45) corrected me.

Tesla claimed Gigafactory 2 near Buffalo, NY, would be mass-producing the tiles and was involved in NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s scandal-plagued development agency (the “Buffalo Billion” case) to bring more jobs and grow the economy of upstate NY. $750 million of subsidies from NY helped build and equip Gigafactory 2, but Tesla has lagged years on its commitments to employment levels and could be penalized $40 million a year if it fails to meet the goals. Current employment is about a quarter of the commitment and the effort is widely viewed as an embarrassing white elephant:

Although Tesla’s main patron, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, easily won reelection, his opponents have pointed to the Gigafactory 2 deal as a sign of his coziness with moneyed interests. Raymond Walter, a Republican in the New York State Assembly who lost his own reelection bid, says he’s concerned the state has too many “eggs in the Tesla basket, which doesn’t seem like a very strong basket at this point.” When Walter toured the factory in March, he recalls, “it was mostly empty. I would say 10 percent to 15 percent of the floor was being utilized for production. It was not an impressive use of $750 million in taxpayer funds.”

…The company had spent years trying to develop a high-efficiency solar panel, called “Project Whitney,” with the aim of churning out 10,000 units per day in Buffalo by mid-2016, but it struggled to manufacture dozens per day in trial tests. In a 2016 incident, previously unreported, a panel installed on a pilot roof malfunctioned and started burning; crew members had to stamp it out with their feet to keep the panel from catching fire, according to two sources familiar with what happened. SolarCity eventually scrapped Project Whitney, though Tesla says it had nothing to do with the incident.

For months in 2017, the factory was mostly idle while teams in Fremont figured out what they wanted to build. Part of the challenge was that the $274 million in equipment the state had purchased for SolarCity was designed for a completely different product—conventional solar panels—and needed to be retooled for Tesla’s Solar Roof. Layouts and production processes for Buffalo changed constantly. “We didn’t even know if any of these tools were going to be viable,” says a former factory engineer. Tesla says the factory is now using the majority of the equipment originally purchased in 2014.

…Which means they only wasted/scrapped half (c. $137 million!) of the $274 million the state paid for equipment. Certainly a wise use of NY State tax dollars.

The Buffalo News has an update:

Tesla once again is backing away from its timetable to ramp up production of its new solar roof in Buffalo.

The electric vehicle maker, which has promised to bring 1,460 jobs to its South Park Avenue solar plant, said Wednesday that it now expects to ramp up production of the solar roof – expected to be Tesla’s main product in Buffalo – during 2019.

Just three months ago, Tesla predicted that solar roof production would increase significantly during the first half of this year, after failing to meet its previous timetable to ramp up solar roof production by the end of 2018.

In its fourth-quarter earnings announcement Wednesday, Tesla gave little indication that the solar roof – designed to look like conventional roofing shingles but with solar cells inside – is close to being ready for rapid deployment.

The company said it is installing solar roofs “at a slow pace” so the company can learn from design changes it made in the product, as well as gaining a better understanding of how to install the roof in bad weather.

The latest news story quotes anonymous Tesla employees and makes it clear the video above was a Potemkin demonstration for a product that’s not going anywhere:

Both Witherell and Dennis Scott, another worker laid off in January, said the lack of discipline was unfamiliar to them based off of other workplaces.

For example, both said that employees would watch movies on their cell phones while on the clock.

“We’re paid for 12 hours to work, not watch movies,” Scott said.

Witherell added: “During my employment there, nothing improved during the entire employment as far as production.”

“Some weeks we produced enough solar modules for zero homes and probably the best I saw was maybe four homes in a week, so that is alarmingly scary to obviously be a part of a company who doesn’t have any sense of urgency to tackle these issues and get them working correctly,” Witherell said.

Scott said his experiences there have him questioning the massive state investment that Gov. Cuomo made on behalf of taxpayers.

“That $750 million could have been spread out a lot better to a lot of other companies to stay here in Buffalo than sinking it into one big company,” Scott said.

Tesla can’t produce and install these tiles at any marketable price for years, if ever, but collected millions of dollars of deposits for them. If Tesla files for Ch. 11 bankruptcy, as it probably should at this point, those consumers — like all the others who made good-faith deposits for fantasy products from Tesla — will be at the end of a long line of unsecured creditors and will likely never be repaid.

In very hot climates like Palm Springs, where I live, the air circulation under conventional solar panels is necessary to keep the panels cool enough to stay efficient on hot, sunny days. But in cooler climates with good sun — for example, inland areas of the Pacific Northwest — an integral panel that blends into the roof can work well. Roofing producer GAF has a new product that is worth looking into.

But for most buildings where rooftop solar makes sense, it is far cheaper and more practical to install conventional panels on racks on a low-cost new roof. Even at Tesla’s announced-but-not-really-available prices for its solar roof tiles, you get more power production and a more maintainable system for half the cost by sticking to conventional roofing and panels.


More on solar and Tesla topics:

PS: Rooftop Solar Mythology

The Story of Solar City’s Takeover.

Rooftop Solar: Trendy Boondoggle or The Future of Power?

Solar: Cost-Effectiveness by Regions, Climate and Latitude

One Reply to “Elon Musk, Tesla, and the Solar Roof Tile Fraud: Update”

  1. Time for Tesla who has never had a profitable year in 15 years to declare bankruptcy. Billion dollar payments on $13 billion debt starts in 2020. Companies all of a sudden don’t become magically profitable. It is time for them to admit they are bankrupt.

    Like

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