LOS ANGELES - Elon Musk certainly has a flashy side.
The billionaire entrepreneur, who made sleek designs a centerpiece of his Tesla Motors electric cars, picked the Hollywood set of the "Desperate Housewives" television series to unveil SolarCity’s new solar roofs.
Here are five takeaways from Friday night’s event at Universal Studios in Hollywood.
1. Desperately seeking supporters
With much skepticism swirling around the proposed $2.2 billion merger between Tesla and SolarCity and shareholders set to vote on the deal, it might be an understatement to say that Musk is trying to woo shareholders. But there is no question he’s on the offensive try to win over skeptics.
Tesla last Wednesday reported its second quarterly profit ever, surprising analysts who expected another loss. He said SolarCity could generate as much cash as it uses during the fourth quarter, a forecast aimed at easing skeptics’ fears that the rooftop solar installer will be a cash-guzzling distraction for Tesla. And the companies are planning to release more financial information about the merger on Tuesday.
The unveiling Friday was another step in Musk’s offensive to woo shareholders. And he wasn’t about to allow the focus to wander, refusing to answer a reporter’s question after the event about financial concerns about the proposed deal.
2. High hopes
Musk thinks big. And he certainly is thinking big with the new solar roof.
The idea behind building solar modules into a roof is that it opens up a whole new market for rooftop solar, which now is essentially limited to homes with fairly new roofs that won’t need repairing or replacing during the 20 years that the solar panels will be on it.
The solar roof is targeted at a different market: People who need to replace their roof or are building a new home. That’s 5 million potential customers each year. And if just 5 percent of those homeowners pick SolarCity’s solar roof, it could double the company’s sales volume, said Peter Rive, the company’s chief technology officer and Musk’s cousin.
The big picture is even bigger, Musk said.
Musk thinks the world will move away from fossil fuels in the coming decades and start using more electricity, which can be generated from renewable sources like solar. If that happens, demand for electricity could triple, Musk said, leaving plenty of room for both utility-generated power and locally produced power from sources like rooftop solar.
That’s where the solar roof fits in. With 100 million homes spread across the United States, Musk can see 80 million of them – four of every five – having solar roofs.
He admits that won’t happen overnight. In his vision, it will happen gradually as roofs wear out and are replaced by solar roofs, which he believes can offer a compelling combination of clean electricity combined with batteries that can store that power so it can be used at night. It also would offer protection against blackouts.
“I’m quite confident, if this is done right, all roofs will be solar,” Musk said. “You’d have to be a fool not to make this choice.
If shareholders approve the merger between Tesla and SolarCity on Nov. 17, Tesla plans to phase out the SolarCity brand.
The solar panels made at the factory that SolarCity now is set to open in Buffalo will be sold under the Tesla name.
SolarCity’s employees will be Tesla employees.
Customers will be able to buy rooftop solar at electric vehicle stores across the country.
3. Don’t forget the battery
To Musk, solar power and batteries go together like peanut butter and jelly.
“The future is going to overwhelmingly be solar plus battery,” Musk said.
“You need the battery packs because the sun doesn’t shine at night,” he said. “During the day, you fill up the battery, and at dusk and dawn and at night, you use the battery. You need both.”
Add in an electric vehicle that can be charged with the power produced by a consumer’s rooftop solar, and the circle is complete, in Musk’s vision.
“You can solve the whole energy equation with that,” he said.
Eventually, it could account for 60 percent of all energy use worldwide, Musk predicted. “That’s a vast number of solar panels and batteries,” he said.
4. It’s about the looks
Musk isn’t a big fan of the way rooftop solar now looks.
“Have you ever seen a solar roof that you’d want?” he asked one reporter after the unveiling.
The Tesla-SolarCity solar roofs are a big step in the right direction, Musk believes, because the new solar roofing products look like a roof, not a roof with solar on top.
“The key is really to make solar something desirable,” Musk said.
“You’d want to call your neighbor over and say, ‘Check out this sweet roof,’” Musk said. “As people replace their roofs with a solar roof, a whole neighborhood would go solar. Why wouldn’t you?”
5. Quiet about costs
It’s the first question any consumer wants answered when the time comes to replace their roof: How much will it cost?
Musk didn’t have a firm answer on Friday night.
“We want it to look better, last longer and cost less than conventional roofs, all things considered,” Musk said.
When pressed by reporters, Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s CEO and Musk’s cousin, noted that the price of a conventional roof can vary widely, from $7,000 to $70,000.
But that equation likely would mean higher upfront costs for consumers who pick the solar roof. To come out ahead, they’d have to live in their home for many years to take advantage of the savings part of that equation that would come from lower utility bills.
A big question is whether consumers will be willing to potentially wait decades for a full payback.