solar energy
Photovoltaic panels are best erected on south-facing rooftops, experts say. (Getty Images)

Tesla electric vehicles aren’t just appearing on the roads. They’re also showing up nationwide on roofs. Don’t worry: That’s where these are designed to be. 

After shaking up the automobile industry and space travel, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has set his sights on the sun. Since the company’s 2016 acquisition of Solar City, a solar power developer and installer, Musk has been revolutionizing solar roofs. The company is making solar shingles that seamlessly cover roofs rather than positioning traditional panels, creating a technological tapestry.

“He’s going for the gold,” says Scott Maskin, CEO of Ronkonkoma-based SUNation Solar Systems, gearing up for its first Tesla solar shingle project on Long Island.  “He wants to own the entire house. The Tesla vision is that all homes will have Tesla solar shingles, electric vehicle chargers with a Tesla car, and a Tesla Powerwall energy storage system.”

While Tesla’s solar shingles are still fairly rare, solar energy has come a long way, and has come of age on Long Island.

“Long Island leads the state on solar arrays,” Renewable Energy Long Island Executive Director Gordian Raacke says. “We have high electric rates and a lot of sunshine, both of which make solar a good investment.”

In some ways, solar has been the victim of its own success. There haven’t been New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) residential solar rebates offered through Public Service Electric and Gas (PSEG) Long Island for simple rooftop solar on Long Island for five years.

“The idea was to assist people adopting solar and to kickstart the industry,” Maskin says, noting rebates remain in New York City. “The industry passed the kickstart mark.”

New York State still has a 25 percent tax credit up to $5,000 and a 26 percent federal investment tax credit in place.

“It was a huge deal,” Maskin says of the decision not to lower the credit for now. “We were expecting it to go down.”

Solar energy may seem like an ancient idea, but rooftop solar is actually a fairly recent innovation, really starting in the late 1990s.

“There were only a handful of grid-connected solar electric systems on Long Island,” Raacke says. “Today there are more than 50,000.”

The gross cost for an average system of about 8,000 watts, typically for $2,000 annual bills, is $22,00 to $30,000, but credits can significantly reduce that, Maskin says.

There are options to finance solar power, which typically has a return on investment of seven years. It’s possible to offset additional costs by paying for the power on your electric bill through a NYSERDA loan.

“I believe the best thing for a consumer is to own the solar system,” Maskin says, noting that some may prefer leasing if they can’t take advantage of tax credits.

The solar industry, unlike much construction, was declared nonessential during the pandemic, shutting down from March to June. The industry has since been ramping up amid rising residential bills.

“We have people who have been home and seen their electric bills skyrocket,” Maskin says of a recent rise in demand. “They work and go to school from home.”

Many people are going solar, but younger people are fueling the latest surge, for economic and environmental reasons.

“We’re seeing a surge in first-time home buyers, younger home buyers immediately adopting solar,” he says. “The 30- to 40-year-olds are really surging.”

Maskin added that residents’ biggest regret with solar power typically has less to do with the product than the timing.

“The No. 1 conversation I have with homeowners is, they wish they had done it sooner,” Maskin says.

He believes solar’s future is bright, especially amid a belief that President Joseph Biden is pro renewables, electric vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Pairing solar with a battery energy storage system to keep the lights on during power outages is catching on, Raacke says.

Will Musk show the roof is the limit for his technological revolution? For now, Tesla’s solar shingles can be pricey, making them a niche item, although that could change, if prices drop.

“It’s the same person who bought the first Tesla car,” Maskin says of residents installing Tesla solar shingles now. “There are people out there who want to have the first.”

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