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

Ford Motors and Tesla Motors are using solar power to pave the way to a greener future. However, under-the-radar solar firms stand to gain the most from this trend.

Jan 22, 2014 at 9:12AM

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.

More from The Motley Fool
Record oil and natural gas production is revolutionizing the United States' energy position. Finding the right plays while historic amounts of capital expenditures are flooding the industry will pad your investment nest egg. For this reason, The Motley Fool is offering a comprehensive look at three energy companies set to soar during this transformation in the energy industry. To find out which three companies are spreading their wings, check out the special free report, "3 Stocks for the American Energy Bonanza." Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely free. 

Fool contributor Tamara Rutter owns shares of Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Ford, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.

Compare Brokers