Elon Musk's Next Plan: Do for Roofs What He Did for Cars

During Tuesday’s SolarCity earnings call, Elon Musk hopped in to let the world know what the company he co-founded plans to do next: create solar roofs. Not solar panels–entire roofs.

The news came amid an announcement that the company lost $ 55.5 million in the second quarter. SolarCity is not yet profitable, and its stock is down more than 50 percent in 2016.

But this could, finally, possibly, provide the turnaround the company needs. More than that, it could provide the turnaround the industry as a whole needs.

The solar industry has been ripe for a redesign for a long time. People take the look of their homes seriously, and covering it with garish (and expensive) paneling is a big ask, even for a positive environmental impact and long-term savings. Imagine telling someone to lay a metallic sheet permanently across their couch or to affix a shiny panel to their kitchen table? Aesthetics matter to consumers.Plenty of people want to reverse climate control and help future generations, but when the barrier to entry is turning your entire home’s exterior into an eyesore, the odds of mass adoption are low.

Add in the fact that the average standard roof needs to be replaced every 15 years, making it that much less likely that someone with an older roof will install something that’s going to have to be removed soon anyway, and it’s no wonder solar still only accounts for 1 percent of the U.S.’s total energy consumption. It is an industry that’s growing–there were seven times as many solar installations last year as in 2010–but still has a long, long way to go.

Think of it as far-fetched or genius, but one thing Musk’s announcement shouldn’t be is surprising. If anything, it’s shocking that it took this long. Perhaps one day consumers will look back and laugh at the solar panels of today the way we laugh at the giant early-day computers or VCRs. Currently, solar panels look almost exactly the same as when the first residential panels were introduced in 1978.

“The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy,” Musk wrote in his recent Tesla “Master Plan Part Deux” blog post, “so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good.”

Now, that plan is beginning to crystallize a bit more. Should Tesla close its $ 2.6 billion deal to buy SolarCity, it will bring Musk’s plan a bit closer to reality–especially the part that entails creating cars that get their energy from solar-powered batteries.

A home that powers itself and perhaps the cars parked in its garage–and in the process, helps the world lessen its dependency on fossil fuels in a very big way–might not be that far off. And it might not look that bad, either.

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