Will GAF Energy beat Tesla on integrated solar roofs?

The sister company of roofing giant GAF has sector-spanning smarts and thousands of installs to date.
By Eric Wesoff

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GAF Energy's solar roof is stealthy and low-profile. (GAF Energy)

SAN JOSE, California — GAF Energy has installed several thousand integrated solar roofs. That’s more than Tesla Energy has installed despite the ambitious promises of its CEO, Elon Musk. In fact, GAF Energy President Martin DeBono believes that his company’s just-launched photovoltaic roof shingle design positions it to solarize millions of residential roofs.

What we’ve built is a nailable solar shingle that goes on as fast or faster than a regular shingle, looks great and generates electricity,” said DeBono, who spoke with Canary Media during this reporter’s recent visit to the company’s new 50-megawatt-capacity, 112,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in San Jose, California.

GAF Energy is a Standard Industries company and sister company to GAF, one of the world’s largest roofing companies. GAF manufactures asphalt shingles as well as roofing materials such as thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and underlayments.

Standard Industries businesses include operating companies GAF, BMI, Grace, Siplast, Schiedel and SGI, as well as Standard Investments and Winter Properties. Forbes ranks Standard as No. 65 on its list of America’s largest private companies.

Disrupting the roofing industry

Technology has ripped apart every industry, and technology is going to change roofing. We’re the largest roofing manufacturer in the world; either we’re going to go disrupt the roofing industry ourselves or someone else will,” said DeBono.

The CEO contrasted the traditional solar mounting process — solar panels installed on racking secured by drilling through the roof and trying to hit a rafter” — with the GAF Energy product, a shingle that is lapped, installed and booked just like any other shingle would be in order to create a waterproof barrier.”

A GAF Energy solar roof (GAF Energy)

DeBono said GAF developed the product by thinking like a roofing company, not a solar company, building a roofing product that happens to have solar capabilities. He said the roofing industry is 20 times larger than the rooftop solar business and has an enormous advantage in scale.

Residential solar installations exceeded 130,000 systems in the U.S. last quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, while more than 5 million new roofs are installed on U.S. homes each year, according to DeBono, who also said that GAF commands a 25 percent share of the U.S. roofing market.

For a traditional solar company, the process of customer acquisition is the most expensive part of a residential solar system, costing far more per watt than the solar panels themselves. DeBono estimates that customer-acquisition costs for roofers are typically less than $500, compared to $3,000 to $5,000 for a solar roof.”

The electronics on the GAF Energy solar shingle (GAF Energy)

DeBono said GAF Energy is making it easier to complete the electrical connections by placing the electronics and wiring on the top side of its shingles. GAF Energy does all the electrical services. The roofer does the roof, and at a later date, the GAF Energy employee will come and install the inverter and finish the electrical run,” he said.

As the manufacturer of both the solar and the shingle itself, we want to make sure that it’s done correctly if we’re going to be on the hook for a 25-year warranty,” he said.

Installation time is one to three days, according to DeBono, which compares favorably to the weeks-long construction process often needed to install a Tesla solar roof (despite that company’s repeated insistence that it takes only five to seven business days).

High-tech roofing shingles

The 45-watt shingle is 60 inches long and 16 inches tall with a depth of less than a quarter inch. GAF Energy strings mono PERC solar cells with 23 percent efficiency on a standard industry stringer.*

Those strings are laminated to a backsheet made of TPO, the most common commercial waterproofing membrane, and then encapsulated and topped with glass and a textured material that allows the shingle to be walked on.

There’s a [bypass] diode every four cells, and because of that, we have much more consistent energy production,” Gabriela Bunea, senior VP for solar research and development at GAF Energy, told Canary Media.

GAF Energy’s Gabriela Bunea with the company’s solar shingle (GAF Energy)

Because it’s built as a roofing product, it has to meet roofing standards. It has to be able to be submerged in water; it has to be able to withstand hail; it has a Class A fire rating — all standards that a solar panel does not need to meet but a roof does,” said DeBono.

It’s a roof and it’s BIPV

GAF Energy’s solar roofing system is a type of building-integrated photovoltaics, known as BIPV. Bunea said, It’s a roof and it’s BIPV, so when we are certifying, we have to certify in both worlds. We have roofing industry standards as well as BIPV standards.”

She added, The testing agencies have become smarter about building-integrated photovoltaics.”

In September 2021, GAF Energy’s solar shingle achieved UL’s 7103 certification, which authorizes the company to install its system on residential roofs as a roofing product and a solar energy product — the first product to be recognized as both, according to GAF Energy.

There’s huge potential for the product. Americans want solar on their homes. Even as the pandemic persisted, residential solar deployment in the U.S. was up 21 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year, reaching a record 3.9 gigawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

BIPV is a tough business

But GAF Energy has some competition. In addition to Tesla, there are a number of BIPV designers and installers operating today, including ArteZanos, Atum, CertainTeed, Forward, Heliatek, Lumeta, SunTegra, Ubiquitous Energy and Viridian Solar.

There is also a long list of less-than-successful BIPV efforts.

But GAF Energy’s parent company is fully behind its lofty aims.

Realizing our vision of a breakthrough mass-market solar roof has been our mission since we launched GAF Energy in 2019,” said David Winter and David Millstone, co-CEOs of Standard Industries, in a press release.

DeBono notes that unlike the offerings of some other high-profile vendors, The product is available today; it’s not vaporware.” He adds, Our mission is energy from every roof, starting with composite shingle roofs.”

*Correction: This story initially reported that GAF Energy’s mono PERC solar cells are domestically manufactured. In fact, they are manufactured overseas, not in the U.S. (though not in China).

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.