Solar Panels on Electric Cars: Reflections on a Sustainable Future

When we look at our history and realize that in 1960 a solar-powered electric car was presented in New York, we just stop and wonder why, or how, sixty-one years later we are still struggling to implement a more sustainable way of moving around our planet.

Back then, installing solar panels on the roof of Baker Electrics was a great example to the world of how easily it is for a car to function – like all other things on earth – under the influence of our main source of life: the sun.

Today, however, we lead very busy, frenetic lives, which dictate and indeed expect a continuation of such frenzy of activity even way after the sun sets and before it rises. This we cannot help, for it has become a necessity. We are not just talking about being able to get back from the office late in the evening, or to watch a film in the middle of the night; we are also talking about keeping hospitals active and running throughout the night, and vehicles circulating all day long. So the big question is: how can we keep the same amount of energy flowing, and at the same time minimize the consumption of the limited resources that our planet has?

We hear it said that, for cars, this means going electric.

There are many advantages to owning an electric car. Efficiency is one of the main: while in standard gas vehicles only about 25% of fuel “goes toward moving the vehicle” – the rest being dispersed into heat –, electric vehicles are 60-100% efficient. This results in better acceleration and deceleration, thus an overall better driving experience.

Long-term savings are another reason for getting an electric vehicle. Although the market is still somewhat scant, the choice and range are growing, and the prices too will slowly adjust in time. Furthermore, all the maintenance-related costs are drastically cut, since electric cars are just “simpler and more reliable”.

Finally, choosing electric represents a person’s attitude towards a better, more sustainable future. Gas emissions are dramatically reduced, and acoustic pollution too – since electric cars are very, very “quiet”. It may be argued that the noise factor is actually a risk, when crossing the road, for instance. We might just have to rethink the way vehicles and pedestrians circulate then, if we want to make it work. After all, when important changes come along, the whole supporting structure around them has to be rethought.

Even the manufacturing of electric cars is not emission-free, though. This, however, is a changing trend, and will hopefully achieve very good standards in the near future. It is still far cleaner than the manufacturing of gas cars or hybrids – which, by the way, represent a very good and viable solution while the electric market is still learning and growing.

One point worth making is that car batteries are very big and heavy, take a long time to charge, use a lot of energy, and eventually die out: and when that happens, how do we sustainably dispose of them? This is probably the most difficult question, which is still only partly answered. We know that repurposing – using batteries in other appliances, such as home ones, once they are no longer usable for cars – and recycling are the two main solutions, as of now. Recycling comes after repurposing, and is often hard to carry out because of the complexity of the “chemical procedures involved”. As a matter of fact, even a slight mistake during the process could easily result in a serious environmental contamination.

Batteries can be charged at home or at stations around the city. Norway, for example, is building a very strong network of these. Consequently, driving to and from work is absolutely no problem. The long time required for a car battery to charge (usually three hours at least) can be compensated by the overnight recharge or by plugging the car into a charging station while at work. On the other hand, long journeys are more of a problem, given that electric cars, on average, can travel about 100 miles on a single charge (this, of course, excludes luxury models such as Chrysler’s or Tesla’s, which even exceed the 300 mile limit).

As in the old days, installing solar panels on the top of a car does not seem such a bad idea to many contemporary manufacturers and engineers. At Aptera they have done just that. Indeed, the car that “looks like a cross between the Batmobile and a beetle” is able to give its owner an unprecedented pleasure: finding more “fuel” in it than when you left it. With its revolutionary new design, the Aptera car has solar panels installed on its top, merging into the paint and the bodywork, adding to the unique style. Not only do they showcase how easy it is to drive around without using too much battery, but they also make it possible for the battery to recharge itself “naturally”. Aptera is just an example of what may be achieved by stepping or thinking “out of the box”, which is to say out of the ordinary. It almost looks like a small airplane in its shape, since its drag-minimizing aerodynamics are at the core of the project. The design is so futuristic and trend-free in its concept, that not everyone may be drawn to it at first. Yet one has to appreciate the effort that many companies out there are making, not just in delivering a good-looking product that can sell, but also a life revolutionizing instrument that is stripped of all the pretenses and comforts we are used to, to solely focus on the element of quality. For, surely, that is the way forward.

Written by Edoardo Cippitelli

Edoardo Cippitelli is a columnist at DecipherGrey.