Why we don’t see electric cars with solar panels anywhere
Most of us know that electric cars are a great, eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuel powered vehicles. One of the key environmental benefits of EVs is that electric cars can be powered by electricity generated from renewable sources, making them a more sustainable travel choice.
With solar energy a readily available resource that’s being tipped to fulfil a quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050, it’s not surprising that people are asking why electric cars don’t have their own, inbuilt solar panels. Isn’t it a no-brainer to have a car that could generate its own renewable electricity from the sun?
Let's take a closer look to find out if having solar car panels on EVs is currently possible, and whether we could be seeing solar-powered vehicles in the near future.
Can electric cars be fitted with solar panels?
Most electric cars currently on the market can’t be powered by solar panels. The surface area of a standard car simply isn’t big enough to hold the sheer volume of solar panels that would be needed to capture a meaningful amount of energy from the sun.
The current technology of solar panels is the biggest challenge when it comes to making this work. Solar panels will never be 100% efficient because the conditions are never perfect. The average solar panel is about 20% efficient, but more expensive, state-of-the-art panels can be up to 60% efficient. This means that solar panels on the market today can’t generate enough energy for car manufacturers to justify the financial and carbon cost of using them.
But, although current solar panel technology is generally too inefficient to be viable to power an EV, it also means there are opportunities for new technology to emerge. Some car manufacturers, like Fisker, are already using solar energy in their electric cars.If solar panel efficiency could be improved to 85-90% through innovation, we could see solar power playing a much bigger role in the electric car industry in the future.
How long would it take to charge an electric car with solar panels?
Given the number of solar panels a car could comfortably fit, the maximum amount of energy it could generate would be around 50 to 150 watts. To put it in perspective, that’s about the same energy needed to power one light bulb (definitely not enough to power a car!)
A standard 240-volt home charge point takes about an hour to provide enough charge to travel 30 miles. This compares to about two miles per hour if you were to charge up using only inbuilt car solar panels. For an average 300-mile range car this means it would take about 90 hours of direct sunlight to fully charge your car. When you consider your car might spend some time in a sheltered garage overnight or in the shade, in real-world conditions it’s likely to be even longer.
Although inbuilt car solar panels might not be very effective or common, that doesn’t mean solar-generated electricity can’t be used to power your car. Solar panel charging is already used by some car manufacturers. Companies like Tesla are increasingly operating solar charging facilities where solar panels are used to charge huge batteries that are used in turn to charge individual car batteries. While effective, a solar charge station needs a huge volume of solar charging panels - around 6 to 12 panels per car. At scale, this would take up a huge amount of land space. So, this isn’t likely the full answer to solar-powered vehicles, either.
Currently, most EV charging is done through non-solar powered charge points at home, at work, or at public charge points. These are usually on-street, in car parks or big supermarkets. Although some solar and other renewably generated electricity could be part of the energy mix being used. This is likely to increase over the years.
For truly cheap EV charging, your best bet is to use home charging and a specific electric vehicle energy tariff that offers greener energy and smart charging at low rates.
Are there any EVs with solar panels?
There are some car models out there already using solar roof panels to generate enough electricity to power some car systems and components. Cars like the Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX use car-top solar panels to recharge ancillary systems, allowing up to 15 miles of extra range.
The Hyundai IONIQ 5 has similar roof panels to help power the heating and air conditioning systems. On a sunny day, you’ll get about an extra 6 miles of range every 12 hours for free from the sun.
Perhaps one of the most exciting advances being released this year is the Lightyear 0. The Dutch designers behind Lightyear promise the Lightyear 0 will be the world’s first solar-powered vehicle. With five square metres of more efficient solar panels, the company claims the car can be largely powered by the sun, only needing to be plugged in to recharge once every couple of months. Although with only 7.5 miles of solar charge per hour this is still to be tested in the real world, and in less sunny climates. The first Lightyear 0 is set to be on the road later this year and, if the claims are true, could pave the way for more solar-powered vehicles in future.
For now, we’re unlikely to see too many solar-powered cars on the road and for most electric car manufacturers, there are easier and more cost-effective ways to improve efficiency. Things like aerodynamics, electric motor efficiency and reducing the weight of the car currently all save more energy than could be generated from an average solar panel.
But who knows? With the release of the Lightyear 0 and the continued advances in solar panel technology, it might not be too long before we’re all zipping around in our fully solar-powered, ultra-green electric cars. In the meantime, the next best thing is powering your electric car using renewable energy sources. Charging your car overnight with cheap, clean energy from solar and wind tops up your car in the greenest way possible, making driving electric the more affordable and environmentally friendly option.
Check out our range of electric vehicles and get started on your electric car journey today.