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Editorial: Demand for solar roofing tiles is reassuring news

Tesla’s strategy for developing and selling innovative solar roofs appears to be trending in the right direction, which is good news for Western New York.

The fortunes of Tesla, led by forward-thinking CEO Elon Musk, will have a direct effect on the fortunes of many in this region.

The company’s RiverBend factory in South Buffalo, which is expected to open later this year, will be the largest solar panel factory in the Western Hemisphere. It is expected to bring with it hundreds of jobs. Built with $750 million in state subsidies, it represents the biggest piece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

Many eyes – those of supporters awaiting the promised economic boost and of opponents objecting to public assistance for a private company – are laser-focused on this project. Any prediction about progress on Tesla’s solar roof is going to gain special attention. That progress, so far, looks decent.
As News business reporter David Robinson recently wrote, less than a month after the company started taking orders for its solar roof tiles, Tesla executives informed analysts from RBC Capital Markets “that the new product already is ‘sold out well into 2018.’ ”

Customers have to be willing to put down a $1,000 deposit to get on the list. For people living in areas that tend to have high electricity costs, this may seem a small bet on a system that could save them a lot of money in the long run.

Tesla is remaining mum on the exact details about the demand for the solar roof but, as Robinson wrote, the disclosure to the RBC analysts indicates that demand is “comfortably in line” with the company’s projections. The company’s next step will be to make the solar roof tiles on a pilot basis by the end of this month at its Fremont, Calif., facility. Eventually the company is expected to shift production to its Buffalo gigafactory.

Tesla Motors merged with SolarCity late last year, and then in a smart move brought in experienced solar panel manufacturer Panasonic as a partner. Panasonic is investing $250 million in the process of making solar cells to be installed in the solar roofing tiles and in conventional solar panels built at the Buffalo plant.

Tesla has pledged to create 1,460 direct jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region, and support the creation of 1,440 more jobs at suppliers and service providers here. The workers will be hired over time, because full production won’t be reached until 2019.

The company is subject to industry trends, and right now overall growth in residential solar is slowing across the country. Tesla officials are doing what they can to attract new customers by trying to find ways to lower high sign-up costs. Tesla does stand to benefit because it has a unique product: solar roof tiles that look better than traditional solar panels installed on a roof.

It doesn’t help – nor necessarily hurt – that the Trump administration decided to pull out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord. The pledge by Cuomo to invest up to $1.6 billion in renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects over the next five years, along with similar statements by several other governors to stay the renewable course, should help tamp down any ill effects from the president’s decision.

Tesla has been taking orders for its solar roof, and the high interest shown by homeowners bodes well for this region.

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