the dream of solar charging

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Paris (AFP) – A couple of start-ups, but also car giants, have started installing solar panels on their new electric cars, which promise a little extra range, but not yet to roll their eyes.

Under the scorching sun of northern Spain, “0”, the first production model from startup Lightyear, gathers enough solar energy to travel more than 70 kilometers for free every day. Its front hood and long roof are covered by five square meters of solar panels.

Its founders, young Dutch engineers, have won several solar-powered races in the Australian desert. By taking advantage of falling prices on solar panels and batteries, they are trying to apply this technology to everyday cars.

The highly aerodynamic body of the “0” and its engines integrated into the wheels allow it to consume less energy than the electric SUVs that dominate the market, and to show a range of 625 kilometers on a single charge. By driving a bit, we could thus only connect it in the winter, the brand promises.

“The clock is ticking: we need to run sustainably as fast as possible,” one of its founders, Lex Hoefsloot, told AFP. “Charging stations remain a major obstacle. If we do not need them, we can scale up much faster.”

Lightyear has set the bar very high, with this first model built in less than 1,000 copies and showing a Bentley price of 250,000 euros. An affordable version, around 30,000 euros, is announced for 2024-2025.

Daily trips

As the electric car market explodes, more models with solar panels are expected in the coming months. Toyota already offered panels on its optional Prius hybrid and on its very first 100% electric car, the BZ4X. Ditto for Tesla’s prototype pickup, scheduled for 2023.

Mercedes has equipped the roof on its luxurious EQXX prototype with solar cells that, with the same sleek profile as Lightyear, promise 1,000 kilometers of autonomy.

A driver at the wheel of “0”, the first production model from the startup Lightyear, collects enough solar energy to travel more than 70 kilometers every day for free. Photo taken during his presentation on June 21 in Tudela, northern Spain CESAR MANSO AFP

According to the American researcher Gregory Nemet, “solar panels have become so cheap that it is worth installing them even in areas with little sunlight”.

“Even if a car roof can’t fully charge the battery in a day, it can still pack enough energy to get you home from work,” said the University of Wisconsin energy researcher.

With a few hundred euros extra per car, solar energy could at least compensate for the use of air conditioning, analyzes Gautham Ram Chandra Mouli, specialist in electric mobility at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands.

However, be careful where you park, warns the expert: Of course, the car only charges if it is outside, and much less in winter. In addition, it recharges much better near the Equator than in Northern Europe.

Under the California sun, the Aptera start-up shows 25,000 pre-orders for its first model, scheduled for the end of the year, a small car with three wheels and two seats. Depending on the version, billed between $ 26,000 and $ 46,000, it shows between 400 and 1,600 kilometers of autonomy.

Another much more classic solar cell model, but also affordable and ambitious, is expected in Germany at the end of 2022: Sion. This compact five-seater is cubic and completely black because it is fully covered with solar panels.

“We’ve developed a technology that covers the whole car,” explains Jona Christians, co-director of the big German start-up that envisioned it, Sono Motors. With 18,000 registered pre-orders, they plan to produce 260,000 cars by 2030.

Sion incorporates the “Vehicle-to-Grid” system, which allows its charged battery to return electricity to the grid when the sun is no longer shining.

The small manufacturer also plans to sell its solar cell technology to others, such as the French group of refrigerated trailers Chéreau.

Another Dutch brand, Squad Mobility, plans to launch license-free solar cars in 2023.

Its chief Robert Hoevers, a former Lightyear, sees the future of cars in the sun: “The panels will be even cheaper, the electric motors more efficient: sooner or later we will run every day on solar energy.”

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