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Solar Panels - Any Use for Cars?

This isn't going to be a post declaring that cars ought to have solar panels. At this stage, with current technology, solar panels just can't generate enough electricity for every day car use. Certainly, there are solar powered car projects out there.

Excitingly, however, cars will soon be benefited by solar panels. How will this happen?

Roads that use solar power to melt snow are becoming a reality, at least on a small scale in Idaho. CEO Scott Brusaw of Solar Roadways is pleased to have recently received a $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration with which to build a parking lot paved with solar panels.

How does this technology work?

In 2010, solar roadways constructed a 12 square foot prototype of its solar road to show off this technology. The set up consisted of an array of solar panels, electric heating elements and a grid of wireless LED lights so message could also be displayed. A durable glass was put over the top of the installation, which can - surprisingly - produce the same levels of grip as asphalt, and it also is non-glare. Phase 2 of this project will involve using the grant to construct a parking lot outside of the company's offices, so the technology can be easily monitored 24 hours a day.

Why can't solar panels be used to power cars themselves?

Electric cars are nothing new, let's consider the Tesla Roadster. It does 245 miles per charge, has zero emissions and does 0 to 60mph in just 3.7 seconds. This car uses about 200 watt-hours per mile traveled. If you assume about 35 miles per day drive on average, you would need 2.6MW-hours generated per year. This would require about 9.7 square metres of solar panels to offset all of this power completely, running 24 hours a day. These certainly wouldn't fit onto the 1 square metre roof of your car, although obviously if they were fitted onto your house, then you could then power you car from them. However, this would then mean the car wouldn't be charging all the time, so a bigger system would be required.

If the roof of the car had a 1 square metre solar panel, then that would generate enough electricity to travel about 2 miles per day if it is in direct sunlight, although a 50% loss would be more realistic due to sub-optimal angles and shadows. So, they'd be perfect if you had a 1 mile round commute and didn't want to buy any electricity! At least this is a start, though, and shows with efficiency improvements, I'm confident we will eventually see at least partly solar powered cars.