Solar Energy Just Powered a Race Across the Country

The American Solar Challenge finished its 1,723 mile journey recently and may be showing us what the future of an automobile looks like.

Aug 3, 2014 at 2:02PM

It may not have gotten a lot of media attention, but a recent eight-day race across the country may be laying the groundwork for vehicles of the future. The American Solar Challenge pits universities against each other in a challenge to make the fastest and most efficient vehicle powered only by the sun.

The course weaved from Austin, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota, crossing towns big and small in the dash across America. The winning team from the University of Michigan traveled the 1,722.55 mile course in 41:27:29 for an average speed of 41.5 miles per hour. That's impressive when you consider that the car was powered only by the sun, and it shows just how much potential there is for solar energy on cars in the future.  

Michigan Solar Car Image Credit Darren Cheng

The University of Michigan's Solar Car races across the country on its way to winning the 2014 American Solar Challenge. Photo credit: Darren Cheng. 

Groundwork the American Solar Challenge is laying
Racing solar cars isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Collegiate level solar car racing has been taking place since at least 1990, according to the Innovators Educational Foundation, which puts on the American Solar Challenge. But the importance of these test/research vehicles is starting to show its worth on the streets.  

Spwr And F C Maxsolarenergi

Ford's C-Max Energi is covered with SunPower solar cells, which charge the vehicle during the day. Source: SunPower.

This year, Ford (NYSE: F) announced that the C-Max Energi will be fitted with SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR) solar cells on the roof. These cells will power the battery whether the car is in operation or not, giving almost enough energy to fully charge the 21-mile electric range each day.

This is the first of these solar-electric vehicles to hit the market, but with the success of vehicles like Tesla Motors(NASDAQ: TSLA) Model S, I would be surprised if we didn't see more. Earlier this year, I calculated that even a small 300-watt array on the roof of a Model S -- the same size as C-Max Energi's array -- could provide over 2,000 miles of range without plugging the vehicle in. If cells are added to more than the roof, that figure could rise to over 5,000 miles of range from on-board solar.

Right now, solar cars racing across the country show just how much potential there is for solar in the auto industry, especially now that electric vehicles are taking off. If automakers can begin incorporating some of the same technology into commercial vehicles, it will not only save EV owners from going to the pump, they'll be able to charge up without plugging in. 

Spwr X Series

Not only are SunPower's cells more efficient than competitors, the construction allows for an all-black design that improves aesthetics when applied to a car. Source: SunPower.

Who will benefit from solar cars
To see who would benefit most from cars going solar, all you have to do is look at the 23 cars that entered the American Solar Challenge. 22 of them were running on SunPower's high-efficiency solar cells, including every team that finished the race. These are the same cells Ford is using in the C-Max Energi.

SunPower is a natural choice because its cells are 50% more efficient than a standard cell, and the back contact technology they use make cells less fragile, slightly flexible, and more durable long term.

The other beneficiaries will be automakers themselves, who can add solar cells to EVs for very little additional cost and provide a great value proposition for buyers in the process.

Foolish bottom line
As solar-powered cars raced across the country last week, we may have seen a glimpse of what the future of the auto industry looks like. Solar energy and electric vehicles fit together naturally, and even though it may be a while before we can power 100% of our travel with on-board solar, I think it may be a growing piece of the energy used for transportation. Don't be surprised to see these two industries work together more in the future, helping to redefine what we think an automobile can be.

Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of SunPower and is personally long shares and options of SunPower. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford 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.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

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.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

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. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of 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. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.


Compare Brokers