Solar-powered cars are exactly what they sound like. Cars with attached solar panels designed to absorb and store solar energy while the vehicle is parked or driving, they’ve long been a romantic, environmentally-friendly pipe dream. But recent developments have seen these futuristic cars edge ever closer to the marketplace. The question remains though: are solar-powered cars worth the investment? Should you shell out your hard-earned dollars to purchase one of these brand new additions to the environmentally-conscious category of available vehicles?
The Cold, Hard Truth
The sobering reality of solar power is that, well, it’s not very powerful. It would take extremely large solar panels to provide even a fraction of the power required by a modern car. The panels would be so large they could never fit on even a large vehicle. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no place for a solar panel on a vehicle (or on something smaller, like a solar gate opener). Modern solar-powered cars are not really “solar-powered” in the full-throated sense of the term. They’re more like “solar supplemented” cars.
These vehicles are really electric cars with additional solar panels designed to absorb and provide small amounts of additional range and power to supplement the energy stored by the battery. In exchange for that additional range and power, you’ll need to shell out a substantial amount of additional money for the vehicle. Solar-powered cars are substantially more expensive than traditional electric vehicles. (Combine them with a solar car fan for the ultimate in energy efficiency!)
The Usual Limitations
Obviously, solar-powered cars come with a couple of built-in limitations. The panels only absorb energy at their full capacity when they’re in full sunlight. So if you live in a climate with limited average sunlight, or if you frequently drive and park in an area where the sun is obstructed by trees or buildings, solar-powered vehicles may not be right for you. On the other hand, if you regularly find yourself driving and parking in brilliant sunlight, you may get some use out of the additional energy-absorbing utility of the solar panels.
Solar panels are also not typically designed for the fast-moving and relatively dangerous environment of a vehicle exterior. Flying gravel, other cars, and a myriad of other dangers all pose a risk to the construction of typical solar panels and, as a result, the panels on a solar-powered car must be protected by tough, transparent material without limiting the ability of the panels to absorb unfiltered sunlight.
As already indicated, the average solar panel can only absorb a fraction of the amount of power required by the typical modern vehicle. Even on vehicles almost completely covered by solar panels, the majority of the power will still have to come from some form of fuel or a traditionally charged battery.
What You Get
So what does blanketing a vehicle in solar panels actually get you at the end of the day? The benefits and drawbacks aren’t that complex and you can probably predict what they are: range, some additional juice, and added efficiency. The drawbacks? There’s just one: cost. And quite a bit of it at that. After all, we’re not talking about a toy solar racer here.
One of the main lauded benefits of adding solar panels to an electric car is additional range. On the soon-to-be-launched Lightyear One, for example, the creators boast of an anticipated range of 450 miles, part of which comes from the vehicle’s purported ability to generate an additional 12 kilometers of range for every hour of driving in sunlight from its solar panels. That is substantially more than the Tesla Model S’ 370 miles of range.
“Additional power” is kind of a misnomer. Solar-powered cars are not really the type of vehicle you think of when you hear the words “power” or “performance.” These vehicles are all about energy efficiency, not the ability to go from 0-60mph in less time than it takes to blink. However, the amount of power one sees from the solar panels is nothing to sneeze at. The aforementioned Lightyear One is set to accelerate from 0-60mph in less than 10 seconds, which is pretty impressive for an electric car.
This is the real draw of the solar-powered car. One can’t find a less energy-intensive way of driving than a good solar-powered car. If reducing your energy footprint is your main, or only, goal, then you can’t go wrong with this kind of vehicle.
In exchange for the privilege of driving one of the newest and most cutting-edge technologies on the road today (or tomorrow), you’ll be paying quite a premium. The Lightyear One is set to go on sale for over $130,000USD. For that price, you could easily pick up a fully equipped Tesla, add some solar panels to the roof of your home, and still have money left over for some carbon offsets. But, as things once were with the Tesla, if you’re looking for the absolute newest thing on the road, then the eye-watering price tag may just be worth it to you. And if you have that kind of money to spend, why not throw in a solar car battery charger and solar battery tender?
At the beginning of this article, I asked the question of whether a solar-powered car was worth the investment. But the answer to that question really depends on who’s asking it. If you’re looking to get a substantial level of performance and power out of these vehicles, you would be better served to look elsewhere. Solar power simply isn’t yet at the stage where one can extract a great deal of performance from panels small enough to fit on a consumer car.
If, however, you’re looking for the ultimate in energy-efficiency along with bragging rights for having the most environmentally-friendly car on the block (or even the state), the additional (and substantial) cost may be worth it. At the very least, a solar-powered car is definitely worth a look if you’re an environmentally-conscious consumer with a taste for expensive, cutting-edge technology that doesn’t cause a lot of damage to our friend the Earth. (Looking for some more cool solar products? Check out these solar briefcases!)