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Solar car
05/04/2017

Ludovic Deblois' Column - From Electric Cars to Solar Cars

The shift to electric vehicles is underway, fueled by the Paris Climate Agreement and several countries’ decisions to ban gas and diesel engines in the next 10 to 15 years. Solar technology is making headway and can help extend the range of electric vehicles.

There is not a disagreement that the world is going electricthe debate is over the timing, not the goal.” These words from Mary Nichols, president of the California Air Resources Board, may not convince the skeptics who are quick to remind us of the electric car flop in the 1980s. Yet if we look to the future rather than the rearview mirror, everything points to the rebirth of the industry, or perhaps its true beginning.

Electric Cars Taking Off

Sales of electric cars rose from a few hundred in 2010 to nearly 800,000 in 2016. At the end of 2015, for the first time the global electric car fleet exceeded the symbolic mark of one million vehicles: 1.26 million according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)-twice as many as 2014.

According to the Alliance for Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV), the second million was reached in January 2017. Forecasts for the coming years clearly show a rocket-like trajectory in full takeoff.

The Global Electric Outlook 2016 estimates the number of electric vehicles will reach 12 to 20 million by 2020. This rapid ascent will continue, reaching 40 to 60 million vehicles by 2025 and exceeding 100 million by 2030 (up to 140 million).

No need to quibble over the estimates: the market is booming and there are good reasons to believe it will not slow down anytime soon.

The Zero Emission Vehicle Initiative

On the supply side, all kinds of players are shifting toward electric vehicles: international institutions, national governments, traditional car makers, and the ‘disrupters’. We need to go back a few months to the COP21 and the Paris Agreement to understand what’s happening. Under the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), four national governments (Norway, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands), as well as ten local governments (eight US states: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, plus two Canadian states: Quebec and British Columbia) signed an initiative to ban combustion vehicles by 2050. The Zero Emission Vehicle Alliance wants to send dad’s old clunker to the scrap yard and replace it with an electric, rechargeable hybrid, or hydrogen car. The Electric Vehicles Initiative is also playing an important role. This is a multi-government policy forum for accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles worldwide. Coordinated by the International Energy Agency (IEA), its members include the world’s major economies: Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, the USA, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and South Africa.

The All-Electric Horizon: 2025 or 2030?

The case of Norway is informative. This country, whose prosperity is partly based on its oil exports, envisages nothing less than banning the sales of combustion cars starting in 2025, and at the latest 2030. In Norway, electric cars already account for 29% of car sales. In Germany, the upper house of parliament has laid the groundwork for a total ban on combustion cars by 2030. As for the Netherlands, where electrical cars account for 6% of the market, a number of members of parliament voted for banning gas and diesel cars as early as 2025, while the capital Amsterdam is preparing to ban them in the city center by 2025. In all these countries, the horizon of electric mobility is set for 2025 to 2030.

Breakthroughs at all stages

On the car makers’ side, Tesla is maintaining its position as a market disruptor. The California company is expected to deliver its first Model 3 in 2017, fanning the flames of consumer desire for electric cars. New entrants to the market abound, fostering even more innovative approaches. Three examples: first, a new Californian manufacturer is embarking on the adventure of a luxury electric car: Lucid. Then, a French company, Ian Motion, is making electric versions of famous car models: same chassis without the combustion engine. Finally, Deutsche Post (DHL), which started making its own electric vehicles to meet its needs, now sells more than half of its StreetScooter production to third parties.

For the next innovation, raise your eyes to the sky

What’s next? In fact, the next invention has already arrived, but you have to look up to see it: the roof. Toyota Prius has already added a layer of photovoltaic cells on some of its roofs. When exposed to the sun, the car then harvests the energy needed to ventilate the passenger compartment, even when the car is turned off. The key is energy savings due to reduced air conditioning use when the vehicle is restarted. Toyota has also taken a step further with its latest hybrid model: technology developed by Panasonic now provides the Prius with 180 watts of electricity, which not only powers the ventilation system, but also the car battery. In a single day this system generates, on average, enough power to drive 2.9 km, and under optimal conditions as much as 6.1 km. This performance is modest for the moment, but it is a first and deserves to be noted.

Tesla’s ambush

Renowned for his reactivity, Elon Musk, the charismatic founder of Tesla, could not let Toyota take over. Questioned on Twitter, he said that photovoltaic cells in the panoramic roofs of Tesla models would be an option in the future. Musk even mentioned a system of retractable solar panels in order to increase the surface area of photovoltaic cells.

625,000 m2 of smart glazing

Incorporating solar cells into panoramic roofs makes sense, and they are increasingly being used, mainly on high-end models and SUVs. Combining this trend with the forecasts of electric vehicle sales, solar panoramic roofs should clearly become part of next generation cars. “To further increase the driving range of EVs, the integration of photovoltaic cells into the glass components of cars may also be just a few steps away,” says Glass for Europe, the professional association of European glazing makers.

Of course, photovoltaic cells can also be integrated into windshields, rear windows, and side windows, and in all types of vehicles: trucks, trams, trains, and planes, as well as cars. In ground transport, smart glazing has already marked out its territory as it meets two needs: filtering sunlight to protect passengers and reducing the energy consumption of air conditioning. According to forecasts ( N-tech Research, Smart Windows Market: 2016–2025) 625,000 m2 of smart glazing will be produced by 2020 for the automotive industry alone. Soon, smart players will also add solar cells to their smart glass.