Power Trends: Taking on the solar tile market – SunTegra

Power Trends: Taking on the solar tile market – SunTegra

Interviews |
By Nick Flaherty

This week sees the completion of the deal for Tesla to take over SolarCity, creating a company that captures energy from the solar tile on the roof to feed the home battery and the electric car. But SolarCity is not the first into the market for solar tiles and shingles in the US, and there are pitfalls.

Pricing is very much one of the challenges as solar energy goes mainstream. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Tesla, says that the cost of the more rugged glass-based solar tiles will fall to less than that of traditional tiles as a result of lower transportation costs and damage even if the cost of the photovoltaic cell is higher.   

That is one of the key factors, says Oliver Koehler, founder and chief executive of New York-based SunTegra (formerly Integrated Solar Technology, IST).

“Solar shingles have been around for many, many years but typically they have had issues with cost or not professionally developed and supported, so there were issues out in the field,” he said. “Our vision was to provide an integrated product at a reasonable price point.”

“I used to be a product manager at BP Solar and SunPower and I always felt there was a need for something different in the market – the industry has standardised on solar panels which is a practical solution but now that solar is bigger and goes mainstream people don’t like how solar panels look,” he said. “So I left SunPower in 2012 and looked to develop different types of solutions, especially as crystalline solar cells are essentially modular.”

There is demand for the solar tiles at the right cost, he says. “We have both a solar tile and a solar shingle and we sell mainly in California and a few states in between, especially Colorado, and three quarters of home owners prefer to have a more integrated solution if its within 10 or 20% of the standard solution – the fact that Elon Musk is going in this direction underlines this reality, that people want solar integrated with the way they live.”

Part of meeting the cost challenge comes from the design of the tiles. “We have a patented vented system so that when the panels fit together they also provide paths for the heat out as it rises and that helps our systems run cooler and more efficiently,” said Koehler. “Because we know that cost is important, our shingle is 100W, our tile is 67W, compared to 50W and below, so that helps us get to a better price point. We also have integrated wiring with small corner junction boxes with short cables so when you lay the products down you don’t have to do a lot of wire management and we make sure the wires don’t get pinched – it’s designed for the roofing trades to install and they don’t know anything about electronics

Amorphous and polycrystalline cells aren’t good enough either, he says. “Our technology strategy is based on using the best technology and that at the moment is monocrystalline cells – that helps us get our cost down. Other products have tried to do with thin film – the problem is that although they have sold a lot of products, its far away from a volume production. The biggest barrier is it’s not as flexible for different form factors and its capex intensive so it’s a manufacturing issue, you need huge scale to make it work and its hard to get that scale. In the future it might work but I think it would be insane for anyone to focus on thin film for an integrated product.”

“We source our cells form third party producers – Asian and US suppliers and that means we can source what we need without having to manage huge capital requirements – they are essentially commodity,” he said.

The route to market is also different from the solar panel installers. “We sell mainly through homebuilders rather than the solar dealer and the roofers and builders need the whole kit and support as they are also installing windows and doors so they look to us to provide those services,” he said. “We think that’s a good model, you get the systems designed properly and you get feedback on how the systems are performing

“It’s more a question of how big the market is for tiles and that really gets down to how quickly we can get down the cost curve relative to standard panels – we see a huge amount of runway ahead of us, it’s about creating the awareness that we are here and scaling our production to bring the costs down. A solar tile system in a new construction will have the same value proposition as a standard panel within the next two to four years – you don’t need a huge amount of scale to get to those numbers as we can buy the most expensive parts on the open market,” he said “This comes from both scale and also product improvements – a tile is a building material as well so how it deals with fire, how easily it is installed and flashed in with the surrounding roofing all of that plays into reducing the cost. Our tile is also unique as it can be used with an optimiser and this really helps with managing the system design.”  

“At the system level we are 10 to 20% higher cost and in the future that will be 5 to 10%, but you also get other cost advantages – asphalt roofing in the US has to be replaced every 15 to 20 years, which means standard solar panels have to be removed and replaced, but using the tiles directly means you can re-roof entirely or re-roof around the existing tiles so that’s a double saving. All this means within the next five to ten years we see solar tiles taking up 5 – 15% of the residential market.”

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