The dream of solar charging

(Paris) Some start-ups, but also car giants are starting to attach solar panels to their new electric cars, which promise a little more range but are not yet eye-catching.

Posted at 8:45am

Media Agency France

Under the scorching sun of northern Spain, the O, the first production model from the start-up Lightyear, collects enough solar energy to cover more than 70 kilometers a day for free. Its front hood and long roof are covered with five square meters of solar panels.

Its founders, young Dutch engineers, have won several solar-powered races in the Australian desert. They take advantage of falling photovoltaic panel and battery prices and try to apply this technology to everyday cars.

The O’s highly aerodynamic body and in-wheel motors enable it to use less energy than the dominant electric SUVs and achieve a range of 625 kilometers on a single charge. By driving little, we could only take it in the winter, the brand promises.

“The clock is ticking: we need to drive sustainably as soon as possible,” one of the founders, Lex Hoefsloot, told AFP. “Charging stations remain a major obstacle. If we don’t need it, we can scale much faster. »

Lightyear set the bar very high with this first model, which was built with fewer than 1,000 examples and has a Bentley price of 250,000 euros. An affordable version for around 30,000 euros has been announced for 2024-2025.

Daily trips

As the electric car market explodes, several models with solar panels are expected in the coming months. Toyota has already offered panels for its Prius Hybrid (optional, Europe only) and for its first-ever 100% electric car, the BZ4X. The same goes for Tesla’s pickup truck prototype, which is planned for 2023.

Mercedes has fitted the roof of its luxurious EQXX prototype with photovoltaic cells that promise 1000 kilometers of autonomy with the same slim profile as the Lightyear.

According to the American researcher Gregory Nemet, “photovoltaic modules have become so cheap that it is worth installing them even in areas with little sun”.

“Even if a car roof can’t fully charge the battery in a day, it can still pack in enough energy to get you home from work,” says the University of Wisconsin energy scientist.

With a few hundred euros more per car, solar energy could at least compensate for the use of air conditioning, according to Gautham Ram Chandra Mouli, a specialist in electromobility at the University of Delft (Netherlands).

But be careful where you park, the expert warns: the car apparently only charges outside, especially not in winter. In addition, it charges much better near the equator than in northern Europe.

Under the California sun, start-up Aptera has 25,000 pre-orders for its first model, a three-wheel, two-seat compact car slated for release later this year. Depending on the version, which costs between 26,000 and 46,000 dollars, it has a range of between 400 and 1600 kilometers.

Another much more classic solar model, but also affordable and ambitious, is expected in Germany at the end of 2022: the Sion. This five-seater compact is cubic and all black because it is completely clad with solar panels.

“We have developed technology that covers the entire car,” explains Jona Christians, co-director of major German start-up Sono Motors. With 18,000 pre-orders registered, they plan to produce 260,000 cars by 2030.

The Sion features the “Vehicle-to-Grid” system, which allows its charged battery to feed electricity back into the grid when the sun is no longer shining.

The small manufacturer also plans to sell its solar technology to others, such as the French refrigerated trailer group Chéreau.

Another Dutch brand, Squad Mobility, plans to launch license-free solar cars in 2023.

Its boss Robert Hoevers, a former Lightyear employee, sees the future of the car in the sun: “The panels will become even cheaper, the electric motors more efficient: sooner or later we will be driving with solar energy every day. »

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