The evolution of the solar roof tile has taken a promising new turn, with the launch of an Australian engineered offering that can generate the equivalent amount of energy as a standard solar panel, at a cost in the ballpark of higher end rooftop solar systems.
The solar tiles are called Volt, and they were officially launched this week by Leeson Group, a Victoria-based diversified group of companies in the renewable energy sector that has, among other things, developed 150MW of solar farms.
Volt Solar Tiles will target the new home market in Australia and abroad with two module styles: The Lodge, which is made to fit alongside standard flat concrete roof tiles, and; The Planum, which is modelled after higher end terracotta tiles.
The technology – which is installed as a portion of a roof alongside regular tiles – uses Metal Wrap Through (MWT) cells and a busbar-free design to increase the efficiency of solar cells and create a seamless look, and a built-in interlocking cable containment system.
In terms of generation capacity, the 115W MWT mono PERC Planum module has very competitive 18.8% efficiency and the Volt Lodge 105W MWT mono PERC module is better again, with a solar efficiency of 19.4%.
The company says a 5kW solar tile system currently costs $12,000 fully installed, after the STC rebate, which it claims is roughly one-quarter of the price of the Tesla Solar Roof and half the price of any other product on the market. By early 2024,Volt Solar Tiles is forecasting that price will come down to about $8,500.
A tough nut to crack
The Leeson Group’s foray into building integrated solar PV, or BIPV, is being headed up by Peter Leeson, managing director of the Group and founder and director of Volt Solar Tile.
It’s a niche business – particularly when compared to Leeson Group’s big solar pipeline of around 1GW and plans for big batteries. And success in solar tiles is elusive – just ask Elon Musk. But Leeson has a solid plan.
That plan revolves around two key partnerships, also announced this week, with Bristile Roofing in Australia and Spain-based terracotta roof tile manufacturer La Escandella as its global distributor outside of Australia.
Bristile, which is a part of the ASX-listed building materials group Brickworks, holds a significant market share for new home roofing products in Australia, while La Escandella is expected to open up export opportunities for Volt to 85 countries including Spain, the US, the UK and Germany.
All the expertise where it needs to be
“Our plan is to work in partnership with Bristile and Brickworks Group’s 7,500 customers here in Australia, and then with 100 solar companies around Australia who are local to the areas they’ll be working in and specialise in selling and installing solar,” Peter Leeson told One Step Off The Grid.
“So what will happen is our Volt partners will be paired up with builders, either Brickworks customers, or they’ll have their own builders or they’ll find new builders, and they’ll go and quote the solar tile system.
“So that way we’ve got a roofing company quoting a roof, a solar company quoting a solar system – all the expertise sits where it needs to be.”
Tesla’s tiles and tribulations
Leeson says he thinks this approach will insulate Volt Solar Tiles from some of the pitfalls that have plagued other products in the sub-sector, including, most famously, Tesla’s Solar Roof.
That product, which is yet made it to Australia despite opening to orders for a time two years ago, has been subject to supply issues and pricing fluctuations that have landed Tesla in legal hot water.
Musk, himself, has conceded that his company had made “some significant mistakes” in the rollout, with delivery “choked at the installation point.”
“We did find that we basically made some significant mistakes in assessing the difficulty of certain roofs,” Musk said at an investor briefing in April of last year.
“But the complexity of roofs varies dramatically,” he added. “Some roofs can be literally two or three times easier than other roofs. So, you just can’t have a one size fits all situation.”
Leeson understands that building roofs is far more complicated than most people think – hence the partnerships with roofing experts.
“Tesla – what they’ve done is they’ve developed a [solar] roof tile… and they’re trying to sell an entirely new roofing system. And that’s been a big barrier to market,” he says.
“I think we’ve got a number of technical advantages over them. But realistically, the Tesla Model … which is selling to consumers, is not what we’re doing.
“Our customers are the builders and eventually the homeowner. …Ultimately, we’re selling to architects, we’re selling to developers, and we’re selling to builders, and then they’re selling to the end customer.
“And that level of trust… we’re working with Brickworks, which has several billion dollars of assets here in Australia [and is] one of Australia’s largest building product manufacturers.
“They’re selling roof tiles, and we’re selling a solar component with that,” Leeson says. “There’s no solar companies in Australia that have both the builders roofing license and solar licenses.”
Years of design and redesign
As well as a solid business model, Leeson believes he’s got a pretty solid product to offer, too.
Weighing just 10 kilograms, Volt is lighter than a standard solar panel and roof tile; it’s TUV certified and is currently awaiting certification from the Clean Energy Council for its approved product list. It has a 30-year performance warranty and 15-year product warranty.
Leeson says the quality of the solar tiles and the decreasing cost – he says his team has halved the costs of the technology over the past eight years – comes down to “years of design and redesign, and redesign.”
The result is a solar tile that looks … like a roof tile, generates power efficiently, and is easy to install – a 4kW system can be installed in about four hours.
“We’ve developed a trunking system behind the solar top which holds all the cable so you simply lay this thing, plug it in, close them together screw it in the back, it’s done. Everything’s encapsulated, everything’s enclosed, all the cables are protected. It’s a really quick simple system.”
Manufacture in Australia, export global
Finally, Leeson has plans to make – or at least assemble – the tiles in Australia, too.
“Right now we’re doing a business case around our first phase of manufacturing,” he tells One Step.
“What we’re looking to do is make the solar module itself… everything put together without a frame at our current manufacturing plant in China, then bring that over here and do the assembly here.
“So that would be, manufacture the extrusions, here, cut the extrusions, get the laminate and put it together, which sort of sounds like we’re just framing the modules but 50% of the volume, our product is the actual frame itself.
“And that’s also 50% of the cost because it’s such a complicated extrusion system. Another part of it is all our IP sits within the frame. …So all the IP around how to integrate that into the building fabric of the home comes in our extrusions.
Keeping the IP in Australia
“So what we’re trying to do is we’ve created all this IP and technology here and we’re trying to keep it here. So the first round would be purchasing extrusions manufactured in Australia, then they bring into our manufacturing plant, cut them and assemble them, and then we can export global.”
Leeson says the company estimates producing 6.6MW of solar tiles in 2023, and with the addition of a manufacturing line set up for domestic assembly, this will scale up to about 20MW by the end of 2024.
“What has seemed to happen over the last how many decades is that we make these amazing [solar] technologies, we export all the IP to some other country to commercialise it, and then they export it back to us and to the rest of the world,” Leeson says.
“What we’re trying to do is bring jobs here, taxes here and manufacture solar modules here, both for the Australian market and internationally.”
For now, however, the launch in Australia and globally is a good start, including at the All-Energy Australia exhibition and conference in Melbourne next week, where Volt Solar Tiles will have a stand and is keen to form new alliances.
Installations are off and running, too.
“We have sold systems in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria. And they will get installed over the next week or two. And then we’re also doing our first install in Spain in mid-November,” Leeson says.