Cars With Solar Panels: Specifics and Future Potential

January 29, 2024

In an era of clean energy solutions, innovations become an integral part of the automotive industry. Electric cars have become the new norm. The California state government has mandated a regulation stating that starting in 2035, all new cars sold must be zero-emission vehicles. This includes battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and fuel-cell electric vehicles.

People need to power those cars — there are two main ways to do this. You can easily find electric chargers at gas stations or near huge malls. You also can charge the vehicle from the home socket. But there is a third group of people who don’t want to be tied to any socket. So, they are looking for a place to get an electric car with solar panels.

We understand their desires for freedom of movement. However, cars with solar panels have a few shortcomings to consider. They are still not as powerful as many may think. So, before you spend your money on them, consider all the peculiarities of this choice and possible alternatives.

Cars With Solar Panels: What Are They?

Cars With Solar Panels: Specifics and Future Potential

Solar panels for a car roof are an exciting and evolving technology with great potential but many limitations. PV solar cells are integrated into a car’s roof, converting sunlight into electricity. The cells capture sunlight and convert it into electricity like solar panels in your house.

Unlike housing solar systems, cars with solar panels have far less area to work. It limits the total power output. Those panels are not powerful enough to power a car completely. However, they can extend the range of electric vehicles or power external systems like air conditioning or radio.

It’s a novel technology that will become a standard practice. But as of now, vehicle-mounted solar panels produce energy for less than 1000 miles annually. It’s the amount of electricity you can get overnight by plugging a car into the home socket.

They are costly to install and complex to maintain, as any vehicle solar panel will become damaged by road debris and tree branches. Depending on your road behavior, you may need to repair broken panels occasionally.

Shading and weather also lower the generated electricity on cars with solar panels. Even a little shade on a single cell can drag the entire panel’s output by 30% or more. Shading just one row would reduce the production by 60% or 70%.

It’s like a chain reaction — the shaded cell on an electric car with solar panels acts as a bottleneck, slowing down the flow of electricity for others. That’s why you should move your car every few hours while parking. If even one row gets shaded, the panel fails to generate enough electricity to power the vehicle.

Electric Car With Solar Panels: Short List

Solar power production is still in its early days. However, multiple manufacturers have already started implementing eco-friendly energy into the automotive industry.

  1. Hyundai offered cars with solar panels, like the Sonata Hybrid, but discontinued it due to low demand.
  2. Another example of an electric car with solar panels is Toyota. They offer a low-power solar roof on the Prius Prime, mainly for powering auxiliary systems.
  3. Some players in the automotive industry, like Tesla and Fisker, have expressed interest in cars with solar panels but have yet to announce concrete plans.
  4. The Sion, a solar-equipped electric car from Sono Motors, is still under development. It has garnered thousands of pre-orders. The manufacturer said they will launch this electric car with solar panels in the second half of 2024.
  5. The Aptera is a unique solar-powered electric vehicle with a highly aerodynamic design and ambitious efficiency claims. It’s currently in pre-production and expected to launch in 2025.

If you see another car with a solar panel roof, its owner implements a third-party customized solution. You can place those panels on almost any vehicle. But before you do it, you should determine whether it fits your needs.

The Practicality of Car Solar Panels

Cars With Solar Panels: Specifics and Future Potential

While the idea of a solar car roof is exciting, there are several reasons why they aren’t practical yet. Let’s discover more about the challenges and potential advancements in this promising technology:

  1. Cars don’t have enough surface area compared to a house roof or limitless solar fields. Even covering an entire electric car with solar panels won’t generate enough power to power a vehicle. Think of it like trying to fill a bathtub with a teaspoon.
  2. Even the most potent panels can convert only 22-23% of the captured sunlight into electricity. In this case, we are talking about a perfect environment: sunny weather without any wind and shading on panels. Even the slightest change in these conditions negatively impacts a solar panel on car roof.
  3. Even the best panels make a small contribution to the range. The electric car with solar panels gets just a few extra eco-friendly miles daily. It won’t play a significant role in providing charger independence while becoming a burden for drivers who prefer to ride on country roads. Debris and small rocks from these roads will damage the car with a solar panel roof in a few years.
  4. The installation increases the overall system’s price, making it even less affordable for many consumers. The added weight of solar panels on a car roof can affect a vehicle’s performance and efficiency.

Many solar experts don’t consider solar roof cars a full-fledged alternative to power your car. Cars with solar panels may become routine, but as of 2024, they are still impractical.

The Cost of a Solar Car Roof

Carmakers are touting solar roofs as a budget-friendly green upgrade, but this isn’t always the case. Cars with solar panels are costly and offer underwhelming power. Usually, the prices vary from $5,000 to $10,000 to install solar panels on a vehicle’s roof.

Even in sunny climate, optimal conditions would net you only 250-280 kWh/year with the Hyundai Sonata’s roof, dropping to 120-150 kWh in gloomy weather. That’s a far cry from powering your vehicle and barely enough to justify the cost of an electric car with solar panels.

While cheaper solar cars like Lightyear 2 and Sonos are on the horizon, past promises haven’t always translated into reality. So, you should not expect anything special from a car with solar panels on the roof, at least for the next few years.

Doubtful Convenience of a Solar Panel Car Roof

Cars With Solar Panels: Specifics and Future Potential

Source: DeZeen

Sure, cars with solar panels sound fancy. However, they are still not as convenient as residential solar power systems. Forget casually tossing your car anywhere it is available. Once you mount a solar panel on a car roof, you should provide as much sunlight to power the vehicle as possible.

It means you’ll get a new routine, where you will constantly look for a place with maximum sunlight to power the car to achieve the maximum sunlight for your region. If you want to power the vehicle, be ready to re-park it every few hours. Otherwise, you won’t get enough energy even to power the electric car with solar panels.

You will also clean the car more than usual. Even the tiniest dust particles lower the panel’s efficiency. The cleaning process will be even more meticulous if you live in a cold region. You should remove snow carefully, without scratches on the car roof solar panel, as it will lower the system’s efficiency.

If you cracked the panel, repairing it may cost you thousands of dollars. Finding replacements may become an adventure, as there are just a few car solar tile manufacturers. So, while the idea of an electric car with a solar roof might be alluring, the reality brings a surprising amount of inconvenience.

Solar Panels on a Car Roof Are Not the Most Eco-Friendly Solution

Cars with solar panels often produce less power than expected. In many instances, you might not even recover the initial cost of the panels, considering it would take more than 10 years to break even. Given that people typically change cars every 6-10 years, it means you invest in a feature that won’t offset its own expense.

At the same time, cars with a solar panel roof still rely on the socket. You will need to change your vehicle at charging stations or at home. Even the most potent car panels won’t give you the promised freedom.

For a greener and more cost-effective choice, use your home’s solar panels to power your vehicle and household appliances. It’s a more financially responsible option compared to owning cars with solar panels.

Looking for the Alternative To Power the Vehicle

Cars With Solar Panels: Specifics and Future Potential

Getting solar panels for a car roof isn’t cheap. Sometimes, it can cost up to $10,000+, similar to a small solar panel on a house’s roof. Consider installing solar panels on your house to generate eco-friendly electricity for your vehicle. The technicians will find the best placement to get as much sun as possible.

Maintaining solar panels on houses is a breeze — their angled design lets snow and dust naturally slide off. Cleaning them every few months is optional. On the flip side, solar panels on cars need more attention; it’s recommended to clean them at least once a week to remove dust and debris.

However, the final choice is up to you. While you can opt for an electric car with solar panels, be aware that it may only provide a few extra miles per day. Since solar technology is still in its early stages, the panels typically have an efficiency of no more than 22%. Increasing the size of these panels to overcome this limitation is not always practical.

Jed Hilton

Jed Hilton

Jed Hilton, our Founder and CEO, has over a decade of experience in the solar industry. His innovative leadership and expertise in solar technologies guide our company's vision and strategy.

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