Tesla & SolarCity: Bringing Solar to the Sunshine State

by Anna Gretz
December 7, 2016

Little known fact:

Despite the fact that Florida is named after its abundance of sunshine, the state ranks among the lowest for solar power deployment. Tesla’s SolarCity’s out to change that.

Why does Florida rank so low in the first place? Great question. It has everything to do with anti-solar regulations that had been strongly and stubbornly backed by local electric companies. But the citizens of Florida fought back, and on this past election day, they rejected anti-solar Amendment 1. The amendment has been fighting residential solar adoption for years, making it easy for utilities to add huge fees on solar customers, making solar more expensive for customers, instead of easing the cost of power.

Tesla’s SolarCity was paying attention. Following the election, SolarCity announced that it was going to expand their presence in Florida, since many more households will be looking to install solar arrays now that it’s more economically viable. In fact, SolarCity sounded pretty excited about the deal:

“This morning we announced residential solar service in Florida, something we’ve wanted to announce for a long time,” read SolarCity’s press release. Tesla’s SolarCity will be locating their expansion in the greater Orlando area, and plans to extend their service to other areas in the state within a few months. All this is thanks to the residents of Florida, who got out and voted to reject Amendment 1.

According to SolarCity, the amendment was initially disguised as a pro-solar policy, but it was actually an attempt by solar opponents to slow down solar development in the state of Florida. Now, the residents of Florida can receive full retail credit for the solar electricity they feed back into the grid, instead of being charged fees that penalized them for generating their own clean, free power from the sun.

Because of SolarCity’s merge under the Tesla brand last month, SolarCity presence in Florida will mean that Florida residents will soon be able to purchase the new Tesla Solar Roof. Customers can still choose to lease SolarCity’s custom solar panels (along with installation and maintenance), but Elon Musk thinks the SolarRoof is going to take off… well… everywhere.

Tesla’s solar roof, Musk says, will actually cost less to manufacture and install than a traditional roof. This is big news. Many customers were doing the math, factoring in the savings on their electrical bills from generating their own electricity, seeing if Tesla’s solar roof would be worth the investment. Musk is confident that it will, even without the offset in electrical costs. The power generation, Musk says, is just a bonus.

“So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less and--by the way---generates electricity?” Musk said. “Why would you get anything else?” Why indeed. But how does Tesla anticipate such a low cost on an obviously premium product? A lot of it comes down to shipping, and product durability. Traditional, cheap, asphalt shingles are a heavy, bulky product to ship, and they break easily in transport. Cost of shipping and lost product due to breakage are high costs. Tesla expects it’s tempered-glass roof tiles to hold up much better in transportation, and since they weigh as little as a fifth of the weight of other shingles, they should be much cheaper and easier to ship. Tesla is counting on cutting overhead costs to drive down the price of a product that would otherwise be out of reach for the majority of Americans.

Many Florida residents are excited about the new SolarCity base and the exciting solar products that will be available, but for Florida to join the ranks of the top-solar states in the US, they have a long way to go.

Let’s start with why Florida’s solar growth has been so stunted in the first place. There’s one major reason: The electric generation system in the state, currently, is a monopoly service. In fact, Florida is one of four states that don’t allow competitive electric sales. Under this set-up, customers could historically generate their own electricity through solar panels, but if they generated more electricity through their solar panels than they were using immediately in their home, that excess power could only be sold to the electric service provider in the area. This gave companies a lot of power as to how much (or whether or not) they would compensate customers for this power. Another adverse outcome of this one-sided relationship, electric utility companies were charging solar customers fees for connecting to the grid, or for purchasing back-up power for when their solar panels weren’t producing.

The very introduction of Amendment 1 seemed to be another ploy by utility companies to block the growth of solar. The first hint? The amendment was funded by Florida’s big utilities... the ones that held a monopoly on the market. The Floridians for Solar Choice, a movement that has been working to educate people on the true nature of the Amendment, urged voters to reject it, and therefore prevent utilities from throwing even more charges at solar customers.

When Amendment 1 was blocked, both Floridians and solar companies breathed a sigh of relief. Then, solar companies like Tesla’s SolarCity moved in, anticipating a growing solar market in Florida. After all, votes speak louder than words.