Think of solar energy and you’ll likely envision large shiny panels perched awkwardly on a rooftop. But that’s only a tiny part of the story. Here are five quick facts to learn about solar energy, the renewable that could play a part in fueling your future car.
1. Solar energy is nothing new. While our newfound focus on renewable energy resources may have put the spotlight on a variety of alternative energy sources, including solar, harnessing the power from the sun isn’t a new concept. In fact, photovoltaic or PF materials, which convert sunlight into electric energy, have been around themselves since around 1890. The process for converting the sun’s energy into electricity was discovered earlier, about 1839, but it wasn’t until more recent times that scientists began to understand how the process works. Photovaltaic processes cause certain materials to convert light energy into electrical energy at the atom level, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
2. Solar energy is good for the environment. Solar energy beats coal, oil and even natural gas hands down for being environmentally friendly. From a sustainability standpoint, it can be hard to beat. While it goes away at night, it is back out again the next day, providing energy all over again. The amount of energy that could be harnessed from the sun is almost staggering: One hour of sunlight reaching the Earth is enough to meet the entire planet’s demand for energy for an entire year. Saving just a 20-day supply would be equivalent to the current global supply of conventional energy resources.
3. Solar energy is already being used to power cars. A car that uses energy from the sun as fuel is certainly attractive: zero harmful emissions, quiet operation, low maintenance and no high-cost fuel source. Like other devices using photovoltaic energy to operate, solar cars are powered by cells of a pure form of silicon that are able to convert up to 20 percent of direct sunlight into electricity. From there, the electricity is delivered to an electric motor while the car is running. If it is parked, the electricity flows to charge the battery pack, which can be used to power the car when solar energy isn’t plentiful.
4. Cost is a limiting factor for directly powering a vehicle with solar energy. Like a lot of renewable fuels, cost has been a limiting factor in moving forward with solar energy use for vehicles. In order to move at a reasonable road speed, a car would need to be covered with PF or solar cells. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the more efficient a solar cell, the heavier its price tag, which can run into hundreds of dollars for a single cell. That kind of investment leaves a price tag that would easily stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Like other vehicles fueled by alternative fuels aerodynamics play a significant role in energy, and thus cost, efficiency. And as though the hefty price tag weren’t a large enough hurdle, there are still problems of how to power such vehicles at night or during inclement weather.
5. Solar energy can play other roles in powering vehicles. Although there are huge roadblocks to powering vehicles directly with energy from the sun, that doesn’t mean solar energy can’t play a role in powering the vehicles of the future. Some owners of electric vehicles (EVs) like the Chevy Volt are already using solar energy to charge their cars. In 2011, Chevrolet even reported that its plant used a 20kW solar carport with room for 10 Volts at a time, charging them before they head off to dealerships. As EVs become more popular, there is likely to be more interest in charging them with solar energy, perhaps even spawning solar charging stations.