Will Electric Cars Soon Be Solar-Powered?

Ford (NYSE: F  ) will debut a concept vehicle that taps into solar charging next week at the Consumer Electronics Show, according to CNN Money. The innovation was made possible thanks to a roof covered with solar cells provided by SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) . For investors in the solar and electric vehicle spaces, it's well known that the connection between the two macro developments is basically inseparable -- no wonder Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) CEO and chairman Elon Musk is also the chairman of SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) . But such an early move to solar-powered cars is somewhat of a surprise.

Ford C-Max Solar Energi concept car. Source: Clean Technica. 

The search for sustainable energy
The nice thing about a battery is that it's simply a way to store energy. How exactly the energy in the battery is created can vary. Sunshine, of course, would be the most sensible source. Sunshine has greater potential than any other source for energy -- approximately 23,000 TWy annually, actually. This potentially dwarfs the second-largest source of energy, coal, at 900 TWy in total reserves. Effectively tapping into solar power, therefore, could potentially be a goldmine for the advent of electric cars.

Unsurprisingly, SunPower's stock jumped about 5% this morning on the news. Though the concept is untested in the market, Ford sold approximately 85,000 hybrids and electric vehicles in 2013 -- that's a meaningful potential addressable market for SunPower, who just reported only $2.5 billion in revenue in the trailing 12 months. The idea of solar-powered vehicles has also appeared to encourage investors in SolarCity; shares shot up 6% this morning.

It won't happen overnight
Notice I said effectively tapping into solar power could potentially be a goldmine for the advent of electric cars. Though Ford's move to roofs covered in solar cells is impressive, the benefits are currently very few.

Ford says the solar-charging roof will be built into a version of the C-Max Energi plug-in car that is already sold by the company. Dubbed the C-Max Solar Energi, it will only go about 21 miles on an electric charge -- just like the C-Max Energi. The vehicle roof only provides an eight-kilowatt incremental charge throughout the day. The benefits from solar power, therefore, aren't enough for the model to ditch the gasoline tank.

If solar technology continues to improve, Tesla could consider a similar move at some point in the future. Musk's two publicly traded companies are already working together, in fact. On Dec. 4, SolarCity announced a partnership with Tesla to use the electric-car manufacturer's batteries as a "smart energy storage system." The battery technology combined with solar power provides two major benefits: It reduces energy costs by using stored electricity at peak demand, and it provides backup power during grid outages.

Who will benefit?
Solar power may only provide marginal benefits for the world today, but the sun's enormous potential shouldn't be ignored. Ford's vote of confidence in both solar power and electric cars certainly isn't a reason to go out and buy every electric car and solar stock. But it's important enough news to reevaluate your thoughts on the potential of the energy source and its implications on relevant industries. Remember, solar power's capabilities today will likely pale in comparison to the innovations we'll see five years from now. Just imagine 10 years from now!

Who will likely be positively affected by the advent of solar power? Many industries and companies, but a few worth taking a closer look at are SunPower, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors.

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Read/Post Comments (33) | Recommend This Article (22)

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  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 8:34 PM, Hiranymus wrote:

    Don't hold your breath!

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 8:52 PM, luckyagain wrote:

    "Will Electric Cars Soon Be Solar Powered?"

    Nope. At best it will add some electricity to the battery while the car is parked. It is a start but it has a long ways to go before being useful. Even if the efficiency of solar cells improved to 100%, it would still need a top up overnight. One thing that might make a difference is that Ford is committed to reducing the weight of the vehicles which will help.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 9:02 PM, HunterofWarrior7 wrote:

    Its exciting to finally have innovation out of the USA, but I still doubt they will pull it off. China is currently way ahead of the game. If it wasn't for Musk, the USA would be much further behind, China, Japan and even the Saudi's who've made an entire high rise completely solar and will soon have the entire city solar as well as the cars driven in the city.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 9:24 PM, freecacheflow wrote:

    This is so lame. A square meter of earth surface collects 1KW. That is with 100% efficient solar panels. At best, you can get 6KWH of power in a day (bright sun shine for at least 6 hours at the proper angle) A Tesla needs 64KWH to fill up and gets maybe 200 miles on that (without a lead foot). That would be 1/3KWH per mile. Your 6KWH will take you 18 miles max per day at 100% efficient solar panels.

  • Report this Comment On January 02, 2014, at 11:27 PM, cobranut wrote:

    So true, and consider that the best commercial solar panels are only around 16% efficient, so your solar-powered mileage drops to about 3 miles per day, IF the sun shines all day, that is. LOL

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:10 AM, jimatmad wrote:

    As usual, a Motley Fool auto article with no meaningful information.

    In order for the C-Max Solar Energi to best utilize the available solar power, you need to park it under a special fresnel lens to concentrate the sunlight (yes, really). Without that, the benefit of the rooftop solar panels is fairly minimal.

    I keep forgetting my Top Three Rules of Internet Aggravation Avoidance.

    1. Do NOT click on Motley Fool auto articles.

    2. Do NOT click on Motley Fool auto articles.

    3. Do NOT click on Motley Fool auto articles.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:34 AM, greenknight32 wrote:

    Solar panels need to get less expensive and more efficient before this becomes economic. Cars need to be lighter and use less energy before you'll be able to go any distance with onboard solar power. Someday, maybe, but we're not close to it making sense yet to do this.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 9:01 AM, normgarry wrote:

    'Solar panels need to get less expensive and more efficient before this becomes economic. Cars need to be lighter and use less energy before you'll be able to go any distance with onboard solar power. Someday, maybe, but we're not close to it making sense yet to do this.'

    The Model S superchargers are a sham. They get their power FROM the local grid and can only return power to the grid during times of high sunlight and no cars in a stall. At the end of the day, the power is coming mostly from fossil fuels.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 9:54 AM, JRP3 wrote:

    Superchargers also have battery banks, they can store excess energy from hydro, wind, and nuclear overnight, as well as sunlight during low use times in the day.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 10:46 AM, Shogun wrote:

    >>>The vehicle roof only provides an eight-kilowatt incremental charge throughout the day.

    There is no way in he** that a cartop will collect 8 kw in a day. As others have pointed out 1kw / square meter is the incident amount of solar radiation from the sun. Now a car roof is far from flat and is also far from the best angle pointing toward the sun, although you might get in more than 1 m^2 of panels there, maybe as much as 2 m^2. Now, others said that 16% is the best efficiency of commercial panels - well, that's wrong - 22% is there now and higher efficiency panels are around the corner. But, let's assume 25% for round numbers - that's 500 watts (assuming perfect angles) from a 2 m^2 area, and we DEFINITELY do not have 16 hours a day of sunlight...

    So, whoever wrote this article has their head up their a**, but probably has a light turned on up there, which is why they thought you can get 8kw from this contraption.

    A more realistic number is more like 2 or 3 kw.. so, given that the Model S consumes 350-400 w/mi that's more like 10 miles of driving, or roughly 1/3 of a gallon of gas... Maybe $1.25 worth a day. If you drive EVERY SINGLE day of the year, that's about $450 / yr or $2250 over 5 years.

    So, how much extra does this cost? I bet it is in that neighborhood, meaning it's probably not worth it in terms of hassle, maintenance, etc.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 11:03 AM, mandingo wrote:

    I live in Florida, drive 30 minutes to work (17 miles). Park my car for 8 hrs and drive back. So, in a normal my car would take me half way back.

    Two things worth mentioning. At night , there in not total darkness in the cities, the artificial light is strong enough to do almost everything, including re-power your photo-cells (at least partially). Second, the hood, could also be also loaded with photocells, giving it another 50% more.

    So viable, now...definitively yes

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 11:10 AM, rcbthird wrote:

    What happened to Toyota's Prius with the electric roof panel in the 2010 model year??? Ford's announcement is hype...Doubt it will be efficient enough to a viable in the northern tier states...

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 12:46 PM, chefp wrote:

    "Will Electric Cars Soon Be Solar Powered?"

    They already are. That's the beauty of EVs: they can be powered by any energy source including solar. Ford's gimmick of putting solar cells on top of the car is purely for marketing. They have no intention of ever producing this car, and anyone who understands solar knows it's folly to put the panels on the car. What happens when the car is parked under a tree, or in a parking deck... ? The solar cells sit idle instead of gathering energy. Solar panels should be placed at the right angle and in optimal, unobstructed locations.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 5:52 PM, cmalek wrote:

    For those blathering about being able to drive only 3 miles a day in a solar car, please Google:

    American Solar Challenge

    World Solar Challenge

    Formula Sun Grand Prix

    then come back and repeat your blather.

    BTW - The two Solar Challenges are races of 1200-1800 Miles for solar cars only.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:00 PM, rmondave2 wrote:

    This is one of MF growing number of mere propaganda articles to fill space -- please stop the noise that all it is you are generating. Fluff and crap and lots of other four letter words come to mind.

    This is why i stopped my subscription to your service, you are more marketing and less substance than you used to be.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:20 PM, AFrisch wrote:

    Works well in Butembo at 0.15 latitude.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:29 PM, eBill wrote:

    MF is just reporting on the misleading and irresponsible press report from Ford. What most people do not get is that you need to build a "garage" covered with fresnel lenses and park your car there during full sunlight to get the touted 8-times benefit. In their press release they called it "infrastructure". Park your car under this contraption during the day and drive at night? (They did not tell you that of course) It is far cheaper to put 8 x as many panels on the roof of your house. Moreover you can harvest the energy during the day, send it into the grid and get it back at night to charge your car.

    There is absolutely nothing new in the dishonest Ford announcement. Concentrators using fresnel lenses are as old as the hills and still more expensive than simple solar arrays. But telling you to park your car when its sunny and only drive it at night ... well perhaps that's new!

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 6:46 PM, nonqual wrote:

    Superchargers with solar panels and battery storage are a myth-Hawthorne and maybe one or two others have window dressing for the low informations types.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 7:16 PM, HLAB wrote:

    ALTERNATIVE TO SAVE TRAVEL COSTS!!

    If you make yourself a travel mug full of brewed coffee to take with you and do not stop at a gas station, coffee shop, et.al. you will save about $1.75 per day. This is exceeds the amount saved with the roof top solar cells.

    But how can this be, it is!

    Instead of paying say $1000 extra for the roof you may either purchase a new mug for say $5, reducing your capital outlay by $995.

    Solar power is only as feasible as the taxpayers are willing to subsidize, subsidize, subsidize.

    Alas, Solar will win out someday. I began working in the solar area 52 years ago. It still has failed its potential. Not that there are those who haven't tried.

    But as I walk the beach staring down at the silicon dioxide beneath my feet while feeling the bright sun at my back I ponder, there must be a way!

    The distance between "tongue in cheek" and "reality" may be short indeed!

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 7:52 PM, tybeesound wrote:

    Until battery technology makes a major breakthrough this is all pipe dreams. From Henry Ford's days battery capacity has only increased incrementally with the rate of energy consumption. When will someone invent the next great thing- a high performing battery?

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 10:18 PM, Zinj wrote:

    This is a silly puff piece floated to attract possible click throughs to the sponsoring company.

    Even if solar panels could someday convert 100% of the sun which hits them into electricity (rather than ~15%), the roof area of even the largest SUV is simply WAY WAY too small to achieve any meaningful charge to push around a massive vehicle.

    ..and I'm a big pro-solar guy. I'm all for utility-scale solar as well as home solar. but a couple of panels on top of a car is nothing more than a gimmick.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 10:20 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    I suppose if you left your electric car parked at an airport for a week or so, it might compensate for the energy that the battery would otherwise lose. It would also keep your car's electric clock running.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2014, at 10:36 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    Tybeesound asks about a "high performing battery".

    Actually, they are already here, but they are not "rechargeable" in the conventional sense. There are primary cell batteries with much greater energy densities, but their electrodes would have to be re-cycled rather than re-charged.

    No technical magic here, but it would require a massive infrastructure investment if it was to ever take off on a large scale.

    I'm not sure why Tesla has not considered that as an option for "range-extension". It would be a bit like having a couple of very large Duracells available if the rechargeable cells ran out of juice.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 12:39 AM, varptr wrote:

    NO!!

    5% efficient panels catching all of the sunlight of one kilowatt per square meter is not enough to run a 30kilowatt car unless you pave half of LosAngeles. Thermal solar has a chance at 80% efficient mirrors in the high desert where a square mile of collectors is no big deal. Multimegawatt windmills and geothermal will work.

    Solar electric cars are like flying unicorns, a wondrous body until you do the physics and realize the unicorn must have a 400 foot wingspan.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:52 AM, Xrat wrote:

    Dear HLAB,

    If I stood my mug on the roof of my car, under my fresnel lens could I brew my coffee for free???

    And when I got into my car that had been parked in the sunshine all day, would I brew too?

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:02 AM, wernbrian wrote:

    One day there will be Nuclear Fusion Energy and a car battery that will provide power for 1000 miles when charged for 5 minutes.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 1:37 PM, RavenandSunny wrote:

    What about roof racks? What happens to those?

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 1:51 PM, drdan4n6xprt wrote:

    "It won't happen overnight

    Notice I said effectively tapping into solar power ..."

    was this pun inadvertent or intended? either way it is truthfull and funny.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 2:10 PM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    drdan, that was funny

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 10:47 AM, wvowell wrote:

    I have one question/thought:

    The Sun sends X amount of heat energy to the earth everyday.

    The earth itself uses this heat energy; to grow trees, plants, heat the air, etc. In other words the natural needs of the earth, plants, animals, and people.

    Is there extra heat energy available from the Sun? What I mean out of the X amount sent to us everyday, how much is needed to just keep the earth habital?

    Using Solar panels aren't we redirecting the heat energy from one spot to another? And will all of this redirection make the earth a "cold" place to live? Maybe destroying crops, plants, etc.

    Just curious.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 11:01 AM, TMFDanielSparks wrote:

    @wvowell,

    The best way I can answer your question is to quote Steven Kotler from the book Abundance:

    "The amount of solar energy that hits our atmosphere has been well established at 174 petawatts (1.740 x 10^7 watts), plus or minus 3.5 percent. Out of this total solar flux, approximately half reaches the Earth's surface. Since humanity currently consumes about 16 terawatts annually (going by 2008 numbers), there's over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the planet's surface than we use in a year. Once again, it's not an issue of scarcity, it's an issue of accessibility."

    In other words, scarcity of solar power is that last thing to worry about :)

    Great question!

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 12:05 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    Daniel: there are really two roads ;-) to go down for this to happen- practical solar power. Road one is the efficiency road and the odds of that ever paying off are ridiculously high due to the low level of energy arriving per square foot. Not to mention the dismal record of PV manufacturing at getting significant increases. We've gone from what 4 or 5% to maybe 30% in 50 years? (yes the technology really has been around that long).

    I will admit that there are some novel technogly IDEAS flitting about for lenses and holographic concentration that have enough theoretical promise to doge the energy density problem but so far....pretty fantastical.

    The other road, that we have been pounding down with limited success, so it looks just about impossible, is cheaper cells. Not just a LITTLE cheaper either. Considering the energy density issue, they have to be DIRT cheap, practically free, so that the low level of incident energy becomes moot. The subsidies we lavish on solar companies and purchasers of solar does not help accomplish this any longer (if it ever did!). It merely prolongs the agony, keeping these basket cases on the drip, limping along improving at the speed of molasses when they need to improve at the speed of light ;-) pun intended.

    Odds of road two succeeding in your lifetime if we keep up the subsidies...nil.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 12:16 PM, ffbj wrote:

    Yes, we are not all going to freeze because of solar power arrays in the desert. This concept car is sort of gimmicky and wii probably never go into production, but it gets people talking, and that is what I think ford is trying to do. Solar panel prices are continuing to go down and now solar is at parity with fossil fuels used to produce electricity, and this is a good thing as we transition to electrified transportation systems.

    Ford, GM, and others essentially got scooped by Tesla, and that stings. Afterall they are America's carmakers. Ego's matter in business as they do in many fields of human endeavor.(sadly)

    So Ford is just trying to say: Hey look at us we are

    innovative too, not just a stodgy old has been company that has no vision.

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