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Dec. 3, 2021

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Camas home likely first in region to boast Tesla solar roof

System will return excess power to Clark Public Utilities for credit

By , Columbian staff writer
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Crews install a new Tesla roof at Dave Miller's Camas home. At top: The glass photovoltaic tiles in a Tesla roof are stronger than standard roofing tiles, according to the company.
Crews install a new Tesla roof at Dave Miller's Camas home. At top: The glass photovoltaic tiles in a Tesla roof are stronger than standard roofing tiles, according to the company. (Photos contributed by Dave Miller) Photo Gallery

Last Wednesday was an important day for Camas resident Dave Miller. That was the day crews finished installing his new Tesla roof. Yes, that Tesla.

While the company is far better known for its high-tech electric cars, its solar roofs are a big advancement in the industry.

Instead of the typical, large glass panels sitting on top of the roof, Tesla uses individual glass tiles roughly the same size as a three-tab shingle. Some of the glass tiles contain photovoltaic cells, and the others are just glass. The end result looks similar to a traditional shingled roof. The company claims the tiles are stronger than slate or standard tiles and offers a 25-year warranty to back it up.

“It takes advantage of roof space to give you a roof that produces power,” Miller said. “The standard today is to put panels over the roof. But a lot of people don’t like how that looks, including me. They’re getting better, but the old ones look like NASA stepped in and took over your house.”

Miller’s is likely the first Tesla roof in Clark County or even Southwest Washington. But he had a long wait for it — nearly three years. Miller said he should have replaced his 20-year roof about 11 years ago but decided to hold out for a solar roof. He would have waited a few more years, but winds from the Columbia River Gorge were playing havoc with his existing roof.

“We’re a third of a mile from the Columbia River but 500 feet above it. We get really intense winds in the winter,” Miller said. “We’ve been losing shingles off our roof since the first year. So I’ve had 31 years of practice replacing shingles.”

Miller said his wife wasn’t thrilled by the idea of waiting but tolerated it.

Once the roof was installed, he needed a new meter and a permission-to-operate order from Clark Public Utilities.

Solar roofs are keeping Clark Public Utilities busy. Bart Hansen of the company’s net metering program said it has installed more solar roofs so far in 2021 than all of last year.

One reason, Hansen said, is that the cost for a new solar roof has fallen considerably. In 2015, the installation cost around $5.50 a square foot. Now it is about $3 a square foot.

Many people think there’s not enough sun for solar, but Hansen said that’s not the case. Thanks to the utility’s net metering program, which credits customers for the power they send to the electric grid, many customers find some of their electric costs during cloudier months paid for.

Hansen said the home gets the power generated by solar first; whatever is left over goes on to the public utility. Customers are credited for whatever they deliver to the system at the same rate they are charged.

“Customers can build a credit from month to month and season to season but not year to year,” he said. Each March 30, the utility zeroes out the leftover credits and starts over.

Hansen said the utility is also seeing more battery installations but said not everyone will need one. Those with sensitive medical or technical equipment, or in areas prone to power outages, would benefit more.

“Folks are looking for a way to participate in green energy. And they can do it from the convenience of their own home,” Hansen said.

While the cost for solar roofs may be going down, the cost of a Tesla roof is considerably more than either a standard roof or solar roof. Miller paid nearly $66,000 for his roof and Powerwall, an integrated battery system, even after rebates and incentives.

“It is definitely not for everyone,” he said. “Roof complexity makes a huge difference in price. Right now, I’d say it only makes sense for people who own, or plan to soon own, at least one electric vehicle, have a relatively simple roof (or a lot of money) and have good sun exposure.”

Miller said it’s also important to be tolerant of relatively new technology whose demand is greater than supply.

He is still in the process of having the gutters installed, but the roof is fully functional now.

Miller expects that during the spring, summer and early fall, the roof will produce enough power to not need any electricity from the grid. During the late fall and winter months, he hopes to have enough net metering credits to balance the costs.

He thinks that eventually, Tesla will pursue creating virtual power plants here, like those the company is testing in other places.

“It’s an agreement with a bunch of homeowners who have Powerwalls and/or solar,” Miller said. “They agree to let Tesla take control of their system during times of peak demand on the grid.”

Through those agreements, Tesla would sell leftover energy sent by the batteries on the open market, he added. He’s hoping the company will also split some of the profits with its customers.

Despite the steep price tag, Miller said, the Tesla roof was the right choice for him.

“This feels like a step toward a more sustainable electric grid, and it appears it will work well even here in the rainy Pacific Northwest,” he said.

He and his wife are also planning to purchase electric vehicles by 2025 and will see a greater benefit from solar power.

“Starting in 2025, I will never buy gasoline or electricity ever again, except when traveling,” Miller said.