Navigant Research Blog

Can Solar Make an Impact on the Transportation Market? Part 1

Roberto Rodriguez Labastida — August 31, 2017

People have dreamed of solar-powered vehicles for decades. The first World Solar Challenge race occurred in 1987 and the first American Solar Challenge (then called Sunrayce) was held in 1990.

Thanks to improvements in solar costs and the EV value chain, the dream is closer to reality. Two startups (Sono Motors in Munich, Germany and Lightyear in Eindhoven, the Netherlands) have projects underway. Sono Motors successfully crowdfunded more than half a million dollars in September 2016 and revealed its first car on July 27, 2017: the Sion. According to Sono, the Sion will cost between $13,200 and $17,600 depending on the battery size and will run without refueling for around 30 km with a 1 kW solar system. It will be available in 2019.

Lightyear is an unofficial spinoff from Solar Team Eindhoven. This team built the Stella and Stella Lux solar racers—both winners of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class. The cruiser class replicates traditional cars, with seating space for four people. Lightyear has been taking preorders since June 29, 2017 for €119,000 ($138,000). The car is expected to offer a range between 400 km and 800 km and travel between 10,000 km and 20,000 km per year in low irradiation areas (e.g., United Kingdom and the Netherlands)—charging only with its PV system.

Today’s Solar-Powered Vehicle Option

A solar-powered vehicle option is available on the market today. Toyota’s latest Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid offers an option in Japan to add a 180W solar roof that charges the main battery. Toyota claims that the roof will give the car a maximum solar rage of 6 km in Japan, which is a country with medium irradiance levels. The option to add the solar roof costs $2,500, which adds 5%-10% to the vehicle price. This seems expensive given the savings it provides compared to buying electricity from the grid that costs below $70 per year, even with the high electricity prices in Japan. From a convenience point of view, the system might make more sense for people without parking at home and short daily drives. My daily commute is around 4 km, which means that if I had the Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid with the 180W solar roof add-on, I could drive mostly electric all year without visiting a charging point. It is still an expensive feature, however, which is why most mobility analysts—like my colleague Scott Shepard, who analyzes the EV market—have been skeptical about the idea of putting solar and EVs together. Yet, other automakers are exploring the PV-EV connection, as well. Audi has just announced it will unveil a prototype EV with solar panels on the roof to extend the vehicle range.

Despite the skepticism, one successful solar-powered vehicle project exists. Part 2 of this blog series will look into Indian Railways’ newly launched solar diesel multiple unit trains.

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