How Solar Power Is Changing the Game for U.S. Automakers

We've seen solar-powered iPhone cases before, but what about a solar-powered canopy that fuels your car? That's what Ford Motors (NYSE: F  ) was prototyping at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. However, that's just the start of it. Here are three innovative ways solar technology is changing the game for automakers and creating new opportunities for solar companies in the process.

Charging ahead with solar
An increasing number of automakers today are turning toward solar energy to power transportation, and companies such as SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) and SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) are at the forefront of this shift. In fact, a whopping $13 billion was invested in solar projects last year, marking a tenfold increase since 2007 levels, according to GTM Research. And that figure continues to grow everyday, as solar cell design becomes more efficient.

Solar companies are in a race to transform, not only the power industry but also the centuries-old auto industry. SunPower, for example, has been working with Ford since 2011 to develop innovative ways of harnessing the sun's energy for use in alternative fuel vehicles. The duo put its efforts on display when Ford introduced its C-Max Solar Energi concept car.

Ford's solar powered hybrid vehicle uses 300 watts of SunPower's high-efficiency solar cells to recharge its battery. The solar panels are mounted to the vehicle's roof with a lens overlay that acts as a magnifying glass. This allows the car to capture as much as eight times more energy than it would with just the solar panels alone. The C-Max Solar Energi model would then be capable of traveling an estimated 21 miles on energy harnessed from the sun's rays before the car's gas engine would take over.

Off the grid
Not surprisingly, Ford isn't the only big auto that's betting on SunPower's solar tech. Nissan also teamed up with SunPower, although unlike Ford, Nissan's initiative is more focused on residential solar power for charging purposes. Through this collaboration, the automaker is encouraging Nissan LEAF drivers to install SunPower's residential solar system to help control the cost of charging their EVs.

To its credit, SunPower's 2.5 kilowatt solar systems can generate enough energy to offset the power required to drive a LEAF about 10,000 miles a year. Partnerships such as this offer proof that solar power can be a cost-effective way to power electric vehicles today. Moreover, solar charging stations offer another significant convergence of solar and autos.

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) is leading the charge as it continues to build out its supercharger network both in the U.S. and abroad. The company's supercharger stations are changing the game by enabling Model S drivers to drive free forever on pure sunlight. While this sounds too idealistic to be true, it's already a reality for many Model S drivers today.

Source: Tesla Motors.

The company's supercharger stations generate electricity through SolarCity's specially designed solar panels, which line the roof of each station's solar carport system. The innovative design of this system is so efficient, in fact, that these superchargers actually put a significant amount of sun-generated power back into the grid each year.

Not to mention the strategic partnership with SolarCity allows Tesla to install these supercharger stations at a fraction of the cost. As a result, Tesla's now on pace to have supercharger stations covering 80% of the U.S. population and parts of Canada as soon as next year. On the other hand, it also creates a revenue source for SolarCity outside of the company's residential customer base.

SolarCity has made a name for itself by installing and financing solar panels for both commercial and residential use. With more than 80,000 customers today, it's the nation's largest provider of rooftop solar systems. However, SolarCity could unlock even more growth in the years ahead if it's able to replicate this success within the automotive industry.

3 stocks for America's next energy boom
Whichever way you slice it, solar energy has the potential to transform the auto industry and the world's reliance on fossil fuels such as gas. SunPower and SolarCity are both well positioned to gain from this trend going forward.

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