Ford Puts EVs and Solar Together at Last

There are natural synergies between the solar and electric vehicle industries, and right now, we're just scratching the surface of how they'll work together. Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) and SolarCity have partnered to bring solar power to electric vehicle charging, and they've also used electric batteries as energy storage for solar installations. Yesterday, I highlighted how researchers in the industry are looking at using EVs for storage for the grid.

Today, the two made another big step forward when Ford (NYSE: F  ) announced the C-Max Solar Energi Concept, a solar-powered vehicle that moves fueling from the plug to the roof.

Source: Ford Motor Company.

This is the first major automaker to use solar panels to charge its vehicle and allow drivers to go off-grid. 

How C-Max Solar Energi works
Ford's C-Max concept has 300 watts of SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) solar cells of the roof, slightly less than a single solar panel. From an operating perspective, the solar panels are almost unnoticeable by the vehicle owner. They passively charge the battery, requiring less plug-in time, but that's about it.

SunPower is a natural choice for the auto industry because its 24% efficient cells are the most efficient on the market and will generate about 50% more power than a conventional cell. Its cells are also thinner than those of competitors, allowing them to be flexed to contour to a roof's shape. Similar cells have been used to power solar aircraft, boats, and small research-based cars.

300 watts worth of solar cells won't charge the 21-mile electric range of the C-Max Solar Energi in a single day, but it improves the attractiveness of going electric. If we use the much larger battery of a Tesla Model S to look at long-term potential, the 85 kW-hr battery gets an EPA estimated 265 miles in range and would require 283 hours of full power to fully charge the battery. If we assume 6 hours of optimal charging per day, that's about 47 days of charging for a full charge.

That may not sound like a lot, but consider that it's enough to charge a Model S enough to drive about 2,048 miles per year. That's about 12% of what the average person drives in a year. Imagine saving 12% every time you fill up with gas, just for having solar cells on your roof.

What's the potential?
In my opinion, this is just the start of ties between solar and auto manufacturing. There's no reason why every EV shouldn't have solar cells, and the rooftop is just the beginning. If we add the hood and trunk to areas used for charging, we may see 1,000 watts of solar on a single vehicle, and 5,000 miles of annual solar range isn't far off.

For SunPower, 1,000 watts of solar cells put on 1 million cars per year at $2 per watt is $2 billion in potential revenue. That's almost half of what the company expects this year.

We're years, or even a decade, away from EVs being that big a market, but you can see the potential. That's why this concept car is such a big deal for both Ford and SunPower. We're just scratching the surface of the potential for solar and EVs, and a decade from now, we may not only put the gas station in obsoletion, the electric plug may not be a necessity, either.

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Read/Post Comments (18) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 4:01 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    As long as you have realistic expectations, this is a good thing. It is just a little trickle charging, offset for accessory usage, and a way to prevent a battery from being bricked. But don't expect many miles from such a small PV array. If you want to charge the car then put PV panels on your home's roof.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 5:31 PM, vet212 wrote:

    Given that at present Solar Cell efficiency it will take about 2 weeks to recharge the batteries I cant see how this can be anything worth while

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 8:20 PM, ffbj wrote:

    Well what they (Ford) say is that on sunny day with full sun all day you will recharge enough to drive it's electric range, which is only about 20 mi. I find that a little hard to swallow, though it is supposedly the first production car (possibly), to utilize this combination of technology, solar cells on the roof, to any extent.

    So they can always optimum condition statement to any general claims they make.

    I do applaud them though for thinking outside the box to utilize a concept that has been generally debunked. Apparently they think they can do better and maybe they can. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 8:33 PM, ffbj wrote:

    I also wanted to clarify that the claim of full recharge of the battery requires a fairly inexpensive solar concentrating canopy, which the vehicle must park under.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 9:29 PM, zsandon wrote:

    It's a perfect project for gesture-mongers. You can't count on it for anything meaningful or useful as far as charge goes, does not let utilities reduce their output capacity, increases complexity and cost, decays in efficiency over time, all the usual downsides. The only thing I'm waiting for now is a wind turbine on the roof and triple government subsidies. Oh, and it should be named "Ford Sustainable"since accessories will surely include suspenders. This is an exercise in futility by a company that evidently lacks the expertise and vision Tesla brought to the electric table.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 9:33 PM, True411 wrote:

    Thanks for a reasonable analysis. There are just a few corrections needed.

    1) Horizontal arrays aren't very efficient. That's why Ford requires a solar concentrating canopy, but that's ridiculous. You can't take the canopy with you to work or to the shopping mall or anywhere else, the places where the car will spend most of the day.

    2) Charging an EV battery isn't 100% efficient. There's roughly a 5-10% energy loss. So it takes about 5-10% more energy than the capacity to charge an EV battery.

    3) A rough rule of thumb is that the total energy for a horizontal flat panel (without the concentrating canopy) averaged winter/summer for the average location in the U.S. is 0.7 (cosine 45 degrees) * peak power * 5 hours per day. In this case, with a 300 W peak solar cell, you get an average of about 1.1 Kw/hrs for a whole day's worth of charging.

    To charge a Nissan Leaf's 24 kw-hr battery will take about a month (winter/summer average). That's about 80 miles per charge *12 months = 960 miles of driving per year. To charge the Model S's big battery will take about 3 months. That's about 240 *4 = 960 miles per year. It's not by chance that this is the same number as the Leaf (same energy, same miles driven). The mistake made by the Fool was forgetting about how bad solar works in the winter.

    At 12c per KW-hr, this array provides about $40 worth of electricity per year. If you keep your car 10 years, you shouldn't pay more than $400 for this option. My bet is that the option would be at least 5 times that costly and you would have to be a true fool to pay for it.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 10:50 PM, dannystrong wrote:

    More hoopla from the Fool. This is not innovation, this is window-dressing for the feeble-minded; yet another desperate attempt by Foolish writers to convince investors that Tesla's pyramid scheme financing isn't pyramid scheme financing. Why else would this article be supposedly about the Ford, but then gush about the Model-S?

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 10:06 AM, JRP3 wrote:

    I like to point out that unlike any other expensive option you can get on a car, from special rims to sunroofs, this is the only one that will actually provide some sort of functional utility and some return on investment. As solar panels continue to improve and costs continue to drop you can expect to see more of this, for good reason. This allows an EV to be parked for extended periods and always have a full battery.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 1:27 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    <As solar panels continue to improve and costs continue to drop you can expect to see more of this, for good reason.>

    Well, yes, I suppose since this has been accurate for the past three decades and likely will be for the next 5 without ever becoming truly economic, its worth noting.... Perhaps if solar manufacturing ever got off the public subsidy drip, it might actually deliver on its L-O-N-G term promise?

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 2:53 PM, anash91 wrote:

    I think this is a good idea. Albeit it isn't quite efficient enough to do an average commute on a day's charge for me, but if the price were right I would get one, as I don't use my car much on weekends. That would give it ample time to charge, and I would only buy gas to commute for 2 days a week. Plus I could probably build a portable trickle charging station to put in the windows. comp this with a fan in a cracked window and you could do decent. It is still a few years off, but this will bring competition.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 6:50 PM, fyrist wrote:

    An excellent start.

    Once the industry commits, the figures (efficiency, capacity, price) will improve pretty fast.

    Too bad we didn't start this in the 80s and 90s when we could have, but glad to see its finally here.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 7:21 PM, RickRickert4MVP wrote:

    Just another article from Travis pimping SunPower. SunPower was up 430% last year and 10% this year. What an idiot....

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 7:32 PM, Dudebro1 wrote:

    Rickrickert - don't forget that the market was up 30% over the same time period....SPWR only beat the market by ~400%. #travisisidiot #rolf

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 7:40 PM, RickRickert4MVP wrote:

    Dude - thanks for correcting me. Also, if you compare it to Canadian Solar, which was up some 600%, it drastically underperformed. This constant SPWR pump from Travis is getting old.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:33 PM, Dudebro1 wrote:


  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:38 PM, Dudebro1 wrote:

    I am confident is the sustainability of 2 things.

    1. Sun

    2. Pizza

    As such, I believe a portfolio equally weighted between SPWR and PZZI will prosper greatly in 2014.

    That is all. Carry on.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:45 PM, RickRickert4MVP wrote:

    Dude - spot on again, but I believe eCigs (VPCO) and medical marijuana have drastically outperformed pizza in 2013.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:48 PM, Dudebro1 wrote:

    Rick - I appreciate your forward looking thesis but I'm waiting for ePot before investing.

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