Will Solar rooftiles ever be more than virtue-signalling for the rich?

Elon Musk’s latest green lifestyle offering might have hit the environmental nail on the head — depending on what his version of "affordable" really means.

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If you thought roofing couldn’t be cool then think again. Silicon Valley’s boldest entrepreneur, Elon Musk, is better known for space rockets and sports-cars than for home decor. Yet last weekend his vision for green living took a decidedly domestic turn - with a press bash to celebrate roof tiles.

Musk staged the launch from inside a suburban cul-de-sac in Los Angeles once used as a set for the US drama Desperate Housewives. Each spacious villa came complete with a new rooftop, futuristic “Powerwalls” (home batteries) in their garages and electric cars on their drives. The launch video (see below) even appears to show a child-size Tesla at one address. Add to this the golden haze of Californian dusk and you have the setting for a glamourous eco fairytale, which was exactly what Musk delivered.

Instead of relying on bulky solar panel installations, SolarCity's glass tiles integrate energy-capture into the roof itselfThe glass comes in a range of options, from “Textured” to “Tuscan”, and renders the technology invisible to onlookers. If anything, the pearlescent hues of replica “French Slate” appear even more beautiful than the original. "You'll want to call your neighbours over and say 'check out the sweet roof.' It's not a phrase you hear often", Musk boasted to the assembled crowd.

It’s almost enough to make you believe that we can have it all: affordable luxury that doesn’t destroy the planet. But can we really consume our way out of climate change? And will these beautiful objects ever be more than virtue-signalling accessories for millionaires?

That partly depends on how expensive the tiles turn out to be. Musk promises that a SolarCity roof will “cost less” than the combined price of a traditional roof and solar panels. But roofs come at all kinds of prices and neither French slate or solar rooftiles are usually the budget option. "In our experience, solar roof tiles are about 25-30 per cent more expensive than solar panel systems which has made them a niche product for situations where, for example, planners have insisted on a solar tiles or a homeowner has a listed building," Susannah Wood, CMO at Solarcentury, one of the UK's oldest solar companies, told the New Statesman.

Then there is the Green lobby's wider contention that we must urgently cut back on our instinct to consume. In the words of David Attenborough, ““We have a finite environment—the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”

Yet the consumerism-versus-conservation stand off is in need of an up-date.

SolarCity's emphasis on self-sufficiency may be highly individualist but it is also refreshingly earth-bound. Instead of moving humanity to Mars by building SpaceX rockets (and burning up a lot of fossil fuel in the process), solar tiles attempt to solve our problems at home. 

The new tiles are also built to last. As a clever demonstration in the launch video shows, when a weight falls on conventional tile it shatters into pieces. But when same the weight drops on SolarCity glass, it barely leaves a dent. Such durability challenges the assumption of inbuilt obsolescence. Something echoed in the ability of Tesla cars to receive digital up-grades without their owners having to buy new models.

Finally, these carefully crafted objects show that beauty doesn't have to be a dirty word; that instead of trying to repress the impulses behind our consumerism, it might yet be possible to channel them in more sustainable ways.

Musk is currently the biggest shareholder in SolarCity, which is run by two of his cousins. Yet the planned merger with Musk's sister company Tesla, means it is not him, but Tesla shareholders who must be convinced the products will sell.

Their judgement comes with a vote on 17 November. Until then, the company must settle for raising hopes, not roofs.

Watch the launch video below: 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.