Elon Musk might have just taken his biggest step yet in getting the world to convert to solar energy.

The entrepreneur unveiled his much-anticipated solar roofs on Friday, revealing to guests at an event in a Hollywood neighborhood that nearby houses all were topped with Tesla products.

It's safe to say the rollout lived up to the pre-event hype. The roofs, which come in four styles, are transparent when viewed from above--letting sunlight strike the solar cells inside--but opaque when viewed from the ground.

Musk isn't the first to try to replace the garish solar panels with solar shingles. Other companies have released versions over the past decade, but none has seen mainstream success, and several have gone belly-up.

So why will Musk's panels be different? Because they absolutely nail consumer desires in two very important categories.

The first: aesthetics. It's difficult to persuade someone to cover one of the most visible parts of their home with ugly giant panels, regardless of benefit to the owner or to the environment. Other companies have created similar solar roof products, but they have generally kept the shiny metallic look of conventional solar panels, just in shingle form.

Musk's panels are basically indistinguishable from regular roofs when viewed from the street. Some of them are fairly beautiful, as far as roofs go. "You'll want to call your neighbors over and say, 'Check out this sweet roof,' " Musk said with an awkward laugh during Friday's presentation. "That's not a phrase you hear often."

The second category Tesla nails is price. Installation costs of traditional solar panels are high, running at $15,000 or more depending on the size of the house. The panels do eventually pay for themselves, but it takes years to reach that point.

While no specific prices have been revealed yet for Tesla's roofs, Musk says they'll cost less to install than regular roofs. They'll also last about 50 years, double the lifespan of regular roofs, and provide better insulation. The panels operate at 98 percent the efficiency of traditional solar panels--obviously not perfect, but nearly twice as efficient as what other solar shingle companies have developed. And Musk says Tesla is working with 3M to create a coating that can make up some of that final 2 percent, or to even go beyond the efficiency levels achieved by regular panels.

Other companies have tried and failed to produce less intrusive forms of solar energy. In 2009, Dow Chemical introduced the Powerhouse Solar System 2.0, which integrated a section of solar shingles into an existing roof. The shingles, though, were noticeably different from the rest of the roof and were much less efficient than regular solar panels. They were discontinued earlier this year.

Another firm, Uni-Solar, produced flexible strips of solar paneling that could be laid across rooftops. High costs and low efficiency meant demand never materialized, and Uni-Solar filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Maybe Tesla's invention won't convince many middle class Americans to rip off their roofs and install new ones. But if the cost is the same, why wouldn't anyone who's due for a new roof buy one that can power the house underneath it?

Musk said there are 4 to 5 million new roofs installed in the U.S. every year, and 20 times that worldwide. With the price and aesthetics both where they need to be, it's suddenly not so difficult to imagine Musk's vision of a world that relies heavily on solar energy eventually becoming a reality.

Tesla's unveiling came less than three weeks before shareholder votes on the company's controversial $2.6 billion acquisition of SolarCity. Musk maintains that the merger is essential to both companies' abilities to provide solar power to customers--creating a one-stop shop for roof products, home batteries, and the electric cars they'll power.

Published on: Oct 31, 2016