What do Tesla solar panels cost? Are they the best solar panel in 2019?
This article has been updated to reflect major developments with the Tesla Solar Roof in the first half of 2019.
Everyone knows that Tesla, and its enigmatic Chairman Elon Musk, are masters of the big announcement. Critics argue that some of these announcements come before they have solved the engineering problems inherent in what they announce, or that these announcements are more attuned to corporate funding requirements than to the technical progress of a new product.
None of these criticisms change the fact that they are also forging a stellar reputation for solving engineering issues quickly and delivering on their announcements with great new products.
The Tesla Energy division of the company has, since its merger with SolarCity (approved by shareholders in November 2016) become one of the largest installers of residential solar panels in the United States. This has come about mainly as a legacy of continuing the same SolarCity business as operated before the merger.
The SolarCity business did, and still does, sell 3rd-party brands of solar panels and so confusion exists in the market about what you actually get when you buy Tesla Solar Panels.
Since the merger, Tesla has made some new product announcements in the solar space and so now consumers are not exactly sure what they are going to be offered when they contact Tesla and request solar quotes for their home. This article sets out what solar panels Tesla is actually selling as of January 2019 and what they are likely to offer you.
Does Tesla manufacture its own solar cells?
As of January 2019, Tesla does not manufacture its solar cells per se.
Tesla has a partnership with international electronics giant Panasonic to create Tesla solar panels. The partnership is based around the inclusion of the highly regarded Panasonic HIT cells into Tesla’s solar panels.
Panasonic is up there with SunPower in terms of having the most efficient solar cells on the market.
The relationship between these two leading electronics brands started with the inclusion of Panasonic lithium-ion batteries in the Tesla range of electric vehicles at Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 located in Nevada.
So what do you mean when you refer to Tesla solar panels?
Tesla solar panels, created by their partnership with Panasonic, are produced at a purpose-built factory in Southern Buffalo (Gigafactory 2). The factory covering 1.2 million square feet is slowly beginning to ramp up with over 500 people already cashing paychecks from the facility, mostly through the Panasonic module and cell production areas.
Production started in late summer 2017, with Panasonic generating cells and panels. This factory will also be building Tesla's exciting solar roof tiles which are roofing shingles that replace conventional roofing material but also contain solar cells to generate electricity.
However, the thing to note is that if you call Tesla and ask for a quote to install solar panels for your home, chances are they won't quote you Tesla solar panels at all. This is why there is a lot of confusion in the market at the moment. They have announced the manufacturing of their own Tesla/SolarCity solar panels and also the Tesla solar roof but neither of these products is what they routinely quote homeowners looking for solar panels.
Does Tesla prefer third-party panels and not its own SolarCity panels?
When people contact Tesla for a quote for solar panels they are usually put in touch with a salesperson from the old SolarCity business and the SolarCity business always sold third-party modules. Over the years they have sold many different brands including Hyundai Heavy Industries solar panels and QCells Hanwha solar panels.
A friend of mine got a quote for solar from Tesla recently for his home in Denver.
The first quote he received from them didn’t provide any detail of what solar panels (or inverters) they were actually using for the quoted price. Just some solar generation expectations and finance terms. This is a pet hate of mine in the solar industry, solar companies being less than straightforward about the brands of products they are using.
I regard this as arrogant. I understand the commercial benefit for the solar company doing it (they can then fulfill the contract with the cheapest solar panels they can find and can easily change between solar panel brands if they are offered a good deal at the wholesale level) but this practice makes it very difficult for a consumer to compare value between two competing solar quotes.
He had to request further detail on components and to his surprise, the initial quote he received was not using Tesla solar panels, or the Tesla solar roof, it was using a Hanwha Q-Cells module.
Only after contacting them a third time, and specifically requesting the Tesla panels brand was he given an option of using the Solar City branded (Panasonic cell) module.
Even the Tesla solar panel warranty page is ambiguous about the brand of solar panels they sell.
It will be an interesting outcome to see what kind of markup Tesla believes it can achieve through the branding of its own modules with slight tweaks with an existing product available through an already reputable manufacturer in Panasonic.
How much do Tesla solar panels cost?
What price does Tesla/SolarCity charge for residential solar installations? Well, in September 2018 my friend was quoted $3.20 per watt for the QCells and SolarEdge equipment, which was $19,200 before the 30% tax credit for a 6 kW system, or around 13,440 after claiming the 30% tax credit.
What I find interesting is that when pressed they did quote him the Tesla-branded Panasonic solar panels for the same cost, which is actually a really good deal, but you have to press them for the Panasonic solar panels because they make less margin on these compared to selling you a cheaper third-party brand of modules.
Let’s fast-forward to July 2019. According to SolarReviews’ price data, the current average installation cost for the Panasonic solar panels is about the same it was a year ago, at $3.23 per watt (or $2.44 after the tax credit).
What are the advantages of Tesla/SolarCity Solar Panels vs other solar panel brands?
The unique HIT cell structure used by Panasonic incorporates both crystalline and amorphous (thin film) technology into the cell to convert more of the sun’s energy into electricity compared to conventional crystalline cells.
Basically, with the added 2 thin layers of amorphous silicon that surround the crystalline silicon, there are more levels of ‘net’ to capture the energy, therefore resulting in the higher performance of these cells in comparison to standard crystalline cells on the market.
How efficient are Tesla Solar Panels?
The current SolarCity solar panel on offer by Tesla has a very respectable 19.4% solar panel efficiency (in comparison to 22% achieved by SunPower, or 17% from most Chinese Tier 1 producers).
However, the real-world performance of the Tesla solar panels is improved because the HIT technology also allows the solar cells to have a market leading .258% temperature coefficient.
This means the panels’ power output falls only 0.258% for every degree Celsius above 25 degrees. This is very, very good and along with SunPower panels with a temperature coefficient of 0.29% is significantly better than the average brand of solar panels.
The Tesla panels will include skirting, to hide all solar panel mounting hardware from the ground view to ensure seamless integration into the roofing material. The panels will also be black in appearance, which ensures the panels are as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
Interestingly, the SolarCity-branded modules come with a 15-year product warranty (apparently superseded by the Tesla all inclusive 20-year warranty), in comparison to a 25-year product warranty provided by market leaders LG and SunPower.
What 2019 has in store for the Tesla/SolarCity solar panels?
Tesla/ SolarCity has had an interesting few months in the fir. They recently announced reduced rates for their solar panels, bringing the rates down to $2.08 per watt after the tax credit. This is 16% lower than the average cost of solar panels in America. However, many in the solar industry are skeptical of these new rates. If delivered upon — these new rates might help boost their otherwise rapidly declining sales.
Even if Tesla/ SolarCity becomes competitive on price, the bigger question is whether they can improve their customer experience.
On SolarReviews, the company currently has a terrible consumer review score: 1.71 / 5.00. Compare that against the average rating for the 100 most reviewed solar installers in America, which scored 4.78 / 5.00. Even more worrying, all 5 reviews received in June 2019 gave the company 1 star rating — ouch!
“2019 will be the year of the solar roof” - Elon Musk
This year we might also see some life injected in Tesla’s solar roof project. The solar cells being manufactured by Panasonic in the Gigafactory 2 will be incorporated in Tesla’s revolutionary solar roof tiles.
These solar roof tiles are designed to replace the existing roofing tiles with a combination of both energy-producing Tesla roof tiles and decorative roof tiles (non-energy producing). The breakdown of energy and non-energy producing tiles is determined by your energy consumption at home. These Tesla roof tiles come with an infinite structural warranty and 30-year power and weatherization warranty.
The confidence in the warranty is explained by Tesla’s claim that the Tesla roof tile is 3 times stronger than traditional roof tile products. The tiles themselves are made of tempered glass (the same glass on the face of solar panels) to allow the light through to the cells for energy generation.
But given how few Tesla Solar Roofs have been installed as of July 2019, there are still serious doubts about its cost and viability. Watch the video below to learn more about Tesla’s solar shingles — how much they cost and how they compare to the competition.
Read more: Tesla Solar Roof: Do the solar shingles match the hype?
Final word on the Tesla solar panels
This new venture of creating Tesla-branded panels in partnership with Panasonic and being rolled out through SolarCity, who are operating as a Tesla-branded nationwide residential installer, is yet to show any real output.
The transition from SolarCity to Tesla hasn’t been all smooth sailing with a very noticeable downturn in the turnover of the energy business. There is still a lot of ambiguity around the cost and installation of the Tesla solar panels. Customers are not even sure what brand of solar panels are being quoted by Tesla. The availability of their Panasonic-made panels are clearly quite erratic and the pricing still in flux. But Tesla being Tesla, there is always hope for how the company will perform in the future.
Author: Andrew Sendy | Home Solar Journalist
Andy is deeply concerned about climate change but is also concerned about cost of living pressures on American families. He advocates for solar energy and solar battery storage only to the extent that they make financial sense for homeowners. He is not affiliated with any particular solar company in the United States.