Can the Self-Sufficient Solar Electric Vehicles be a Game Changer?


Solar Electric Vehicles are just around the horizon but can they be a game changer in this battery-electric vehicles segment? Solar electric vehicles have regular lithium-based batteries just like battery-electric vehicles. And On the exterior surface, solar panels are integrated which can charge the batteries by harnessing the sun’s power. Thus these solar panels help in providing an additional range of around 15-45 miles on a clear sunny day. For daily commuters and other short-distance hauls up to 45 miles, the owners do not have to charge their vehicles on the mains as the range required will be replenished entirely by the solar panels.

Industry experts are of the view that incorporating bigger batteries for more range is not the best solution because bigger batteries will not help in bringing down EV prices. So the manufacturers will have to look into ways to improve the efficiency of electric vehicles to achieve price parity with gas-powered vehicles. These days electric vehicle automakers are taking into account the aerodynamic efficiency of the vehicles but that is just one aspect of improving efficiency.

Some automakers like Germany-based Sono Motors, California-based Aptera Motors, and Dutch company Lightyear have moved a step forward and launched electric vehicles with integrated solar panels. These vehicles have all the essential functionalities of a standard EV and also come with self-charging capabilities due to the solar panels. Are Solar Electric Vehicles a step in the right direction or will the challenges halt technological advancement? Here we will be highlighting the advantages in favor of Solar EVs and also the challenges that lie ahead for solar EVs.

Advantages of Solar EVs

Cost Efficiency

Electric vehicles are advocated for low running and maintenance costs due to fewer moving parts. These solar electric vehicles have further lower running costs because the batteries can be fueled by the sun, that too free of charge. Solar EVs can give up to 5,700 miles of free range per year which is roughly 15 miles a day, free of any cost. Many daily commuters will not have to recharge their vehicle for days, sometimes weeks, and even months given the daily miles traveled. The EV owners do not have to worry about rising gas prices and the solar EV owners do not even have to worry about rising power prices to some extent.

Can Eliminate Range Anxiety

Surveys have revealed people are not switching to EVs because of a lack of charging infrastructure and the fear of range anxiety. Solar electric vehicles can help eliminate these biggest roadblocks in the adoption of electric vehicles. Solar panels can replenish the battery levels under the sun if the vehicle is stationary or even when the vehicle is moving. Of course, solar panels cannot recharge the battery at the same rate as using a mains power supply or at the same rate as it discharges while on the move. But these extra miles added even when the vehicle is on the go can make a lot of difference and encourage many to switch to solar EVs.

Disadvantages of Solar EVs

Weather Dependent

The extra miles that can be provided by the integrated solar panels are highly dependent on the climatic conditions of every location. With respect to the place, again there would be variations in the additional range because of the seasonal pattern throughout the year. So if the solar EV is to be used at a location where the conditions are primarily overcast, it defeats the whole purpose of the integration of solar panels in battery electric vehicles. Solar Electric Vehicle Manufacturers will have limited markets to target because they won’t find buyers if the climatic conditions are not favorable for the solar panels.

The efficiency of Solar Panels

For integrated solar panels to make a big impact efficiency will be the key as the solar panels are already limited in quantity. And for maximum efficiency of the solar panels, they have to be at right angles to the sun’s rays which is not possible all the time. Solar electric vehicles feature a photovoltaic system of near or above one kW capacity and the energy conversion efficiency is limited to 20-22%. If the highly efficient solar modules used in the spacecraft are used in the solar electric vehicles it will again be an expensive choice. 

Limited Surface Area

Even if the solar panels deliver up to their full potential, solar electric vehicles have a limited surface area of roughly 50 square feet available for the integration of solar cells.

The Cost Economics

Spending those extra bucks on the solar electric car will only make good financial sense if the payback period is considerably small. Although the batteries are replenished free of any cost because it is fueled by the sun but the integration of the solar panels comes with its own cost. So this additional cost associated with solar electric vehicles over conventional battery electric vehicles should have a good payback period and shouldn’t prove to be a barrier to achieving price parity with gas-powered vehicles. Also, there would not be any solar electric vehicles being offered in the budget category.

Design Constraints

Auto designers have a task at hand when designing the exterior of a solar electric vehicle because of the various design constraints. For the integration of the solar panels on its body, designers have to provide the maximum surface area, also the surface has to be flat and less curvy or edgy. This means the exterior design of the solar EV will be boxy which will not help in reducing the drag. Also, the boxy design language of solar electric vehicles may not appeal to the mass audience. Well, this is a matter of liking and a matter of preference for looks over utility which totally depends on the individual.

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