Solar-powered electric vehicles. Is this the next frontier?

“Alumni John Skopek takes a ride in a solar powered car built by students at Penn State Hazleton.” by pennstatenews is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 2019 Toyota Prius is now available with solar panels to assist charge its battery pack, and this concept is not new – the company has already produced a solar-equipped Prius “PHV” (photovoltaic hybrid vehicle). However, recent advancements in solar panel efficiency have enabled this new solar-powered variant to greatly extend its electric-only range. While the current Prius PHV offered in Japan has a solar power efficiency of 22.5%, Toyota claims the new “demo car” has an efficiency of 34% or higher, allowing it to create nearly five times the amount of electricity (about 860W) using only the sun. Furthermore, Toyota has upgraded the solar panel charging technology so that it works when the car is driving as well as when it is parked (the previous PHV could only gather power from the sun while it was parked). The new showcase car can store up to 44.5km of electric-only cruising range per day while parked and can increase that range to 56.3km when driven, as the solar cells power all of the vehicle’s auxiliary systems while driving.

The sun is our planet’s most abundant energy source, and capturing as much of it as possible is critical to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Solar panels are well suited for residential applications in terms of efficiency and cost. Typical crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells convert 18 to 22% of sunshine into power and are becoming more inexpensive. Everyday automobiles are around ten times heavier than solar race cars, and they also require a lot of power. These are significant obstacles to overcome, which makes the concrete interest in making solar vehicle technology viable in real-world applications all the more encouraging. A number of firms are developing more extreme vehicles that put solar propulsion front and center. In 2022, a Dutch firm called Lightyear One will begin delivering its first electric vehicle. The vehicle features approximately 11 square feet of solar panels that can supply up to 43 miles of range per day, as well as an aerodynamic form inspired by solar racers.

Finally, Aptera Motors of San Diego is proposing a vehicle that would look right at home next to the most successful World Solar Challenge racing cars. The two-seater, three-wheeled vehicle is outfitted with 700 watts of solar electricity, which equates to approximately 40 sun-powered miles each day. Despite the fact that the car weighs 65% less than a standard EV, the driver is protected by a safety cell that is seven times stronger than steel due to its robust eggshell shape and the use of modern composite materials. It remains to be seen whether drivers warm up to the unusual appearance. If the automobile is a success, solar racers’ hyper-efficiency ambitions will become much more popular. Solar-powered electric vehicles are expected to become mainstream in the near future. With contests throughout the world pushing the limits of this technology and carmakers finding novel methods to integrate the solution, EVs are prepared to be fueled by renewable energy on a larger scale than ever before.