Are Solar Panels the Future of Electric Vehicles?
With the EV mainstream, the auto industry broadly agrees that the next big thing is no longer about eliminating gas engines, but rather finding the most efficient way to generate electricity for cars. Some companies, including Tesla, are focused on perfecting the already popular lithium-ion batteries. others take the risk of exploring new battery technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and solid-state batteries.
But few have pursued an alternative energy source that dominates elsewhere: solar energy.
What’s stopping EV companies from making a car with solar panels that automatically charges when it’s sunny outside and then has enough juice to hit the road the next morning? The concept sounds simple and perfectly environmentally friendly.
In fact, there were some early attempts to use solar energy for automobiles. In 1955, a General Motors engineer built a tiny 15-inch solar car called the Sunmobile to demonstrate the potential of solar power. Unfortunately, due to limitations on energy efficiency, storage, and (obviously) weather, they were unable to turn the prototype into a fully solar powered car. And since then, engineers have come to the conclusion that no solar panel can generate enough power to support regular use of a car while being small enough to be carried around by a car.
However, Laurin Hahn, founder and CEO of German startup Sono Motors, believes the idea is still worth exploring. His approach is intuitive: maximum use of solar by wrapping an entire car in solar cells.
“People will always say it’s a gimmick. But it is not. Solar cuts costs and makes electric vehicles more affordable without sacrificing convenience, ”Hahn said in an interview with Observer last month.
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At this year’s (virtual) Consumer Electronics Show in January, Sono presented its latest prototype SEV (Solar Electric Vehicle), a car named Sion. The company also showcased a trailer equipped with Sonos solar body panels to demonstrate the technology’s potential for integration with other vehicles.
At first glance, Sion doesn’t look much different than any other black compact car that drives through the streets of European cities. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the exterior of the car is made up of hundreds of solar cells molded into polymer. These solar cells (248 in total) convert sunlight into energy, which is then stored in the vehicle’s battery. Based on the average weather in Munich, solar cells on a Sion can generate up to 1.2 kilowatts per day, which corresponds to a range of 21 miles. That alone is enough for most commuters in Europe, who drive an average of 11 miles a day.
In America, people drive a little more (an average of 30 miles per day), but they also likely live in places that are sunnier than Munich.
Still, it’s not a fully solar powered car. Combined with the built-in lithium-ion battery, a Sion can last 155 miles on a single charge at a top speed of 140 km / h.
But the solar panels from Sono are not designed to replace conventional charging methods anyway, stressed Hahn. Instead, it should be a performance supplement to reduce the dependency of a battery-powered car on the charging infrastructure. In Germany, for example, where commuters drive 16 km a day, solar integration in the Sion car increases the need to connect the device from once a week to once a month.
The bigger purpose is to integrate the technology with the rest of the transportation industry. “Our goal is twofold: to build an affordable mass-market SEV and make this technology available to other battery-powered vehicles, trains, boats, and basically all moving things that use electricity,” said Hahn.
“For example, we have a lot of demand for refrigerated vehicles,” he added Thomas Hausch, Sono’s Chief Operating Officer. “The trailer industry is under tremendous pressure to move towards zero emissions. And we found a solution for them that is viable and affordable. “
In January, Sono signed an agreement to license its solar technology to EasyMile, a French company that makes autonomous electric shuttle buses. Hahn did not disclose names and said the company was in talks with several US automakers “who have a lot of vehicles on the road” and “they are very interested”.