Can Solar Powered Vehicles become a reality?
Burning fossil fuels is one of the major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions since about 81% of all emissions are of CO2. Emissions from transportation significantly contribute to the greenhouse accumulation in the atmosphere. Thus, shifting from fossil fuels to less polluting and cleaner sources of energy would reduce the total GHG emissions from the sector.
Billions of barrels of oil is used daily to meet energy demand from the transportation sector alone. Oil and gas are a dirty source of energy. If countries are to meet their reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, transportation will need to be cleaned. Recently, oil was traded at negative prices, incentivising countries to fund the development of larger storage facilities. This may be economical in the short run, but even negative oil prices do not reveal its true costs. To understand the true costs of oil, environmental, social, and health externalities and subsidies should be accounted for.
Shifting transportation to renewables may be the key to unlock not only sustainability but also relieve countries of their economic burden of providing subsidised dirty fuels.
An alternative to petrol or diesel vehicles is solar powered vehicles. Solar powered cars run entirely on solar energy. There are no Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) or batteries that are charged using grid electricity (from charging stations) in solar cars. Solar powered vehicles sound highly beneficial because solar energy is virtually unlimited and it is a clean alternative to gas guzzling cars. They are also cost effective since they get abundant energy directly from the sun. The batteries here are solar powered. It can be stored and used later in the night.
Solar powered cars are currently used only for solar car races where participants are given a chance to explore technologies to build their own solar powered cars with photovoltaic energy.
Other Alternatives to Petrol Based Cars
While solar cars are a form of clean transport, their popularity in the market in the future is very uncertain. Electrical Vehicles (EV) on the other hand are very promising. Norway has the highest number of people (3.3% of the total population) owning EVs. This is because of favourable environmental conditions for renewable energy in the country and financial incentives by the Norwegian government.
Norway has an active business community that is engaged in developing or investing in renewable sources of energy compared to other countries neighbouring it. 98% of its power is generated from renewable resources with primary energy sources being hydropower. In Sweden, about 80% of its electricity is from hydroelectric and nuclear power and 8% of wind power.
Currently, Iceland relies on imports of oil only for transportation uses. Over the years, the government has developed generous incentives for EVs by introducing petroleum excise duties and increasing carbon tax. This is encouraging for buyers to consider buying Electric Vehicles. It is expected that there would be an increase in the use of BEVs and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles in Iceland too. By switching to EVs, there would be no reason to import petroleum fuels for transportation. Vehicles can be recharged using renewable sources of energy and thus this shift is beneficial to Iceland.\ Scandinavian countries like Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden have been depending on renewable energy as a major source of electricity thus, switching to solar cars and electric vehicles will only be more beneficial to them as it means no upfront investment in conventional energy sources.
Norway is followed by the Netherlands and then Sweden in the number of people owning EVs. However, in other countries where almost all vehicles are petrol powered, sudden renewable changes in the transport sector is not very practical. It will involve major changes in laws pertaining to safety measures while producing solar panels on a large scale and policies to encourage renewable energy and this includes changes in the way fossil fuel powered vehicles are charged and taxed (which is majorly used by the people here). This would affect the energy sector and since fossil fuel industries generally influence the economy of a nation significantly, this would affect the economy of that country and eventually the cost of living. Apart from this, there is a common misconception underestimating the strength of renewable energy. In addition to this, huge initial capital investments are to be made. Therefore, it is exceedingly difficult for renewable energy to make an easy market entry.
There has been a general shift in the consumer’s attitude towards EVs causing the Original Equipment Managers (OEMs) to invest more in technology and R&D related to EV. Deloitte estimates that by 2022, battery electric vehicles will become affordable and be a feasible option for any buyer. Buyers will be able to make a choice between vehicles with internal combustion engines and battery electric vehicles that is not influenced by the cost, as the price differences between the two would have shrunk.
Battery Electrical Vehicles (BEVs) are ones that are run by rechargeable batteries that can be recharged at stations. However, mining for minerals to make these batteries comes at the cost of huge environmental impact as it degrades the land. Tesla is leading in the production of BEVs. Tesla also opened its own recycling centre last year in Nevada, USA to recycle the batteries. Minerals like copper, lithium, cobalt and aluminium will be recovered from old batteries and be reused as raw materials in new battery production.
There is another type of EV called the Plug-in electric vehicle which runs on batteries that can be recharged by regenerative braking and also by plugging in to an external source of power.
Another alternative is Hydrogen Fuel Cells. For a very long time, hydrogen has been considered to replace hydrocarbon fuels. Hydrogen is abundant and many companies are trying to tap this chemical to be used as clean energy. Hydrogen can be obtained by hydrolysis of water using electricity. This electricity can be generated from solar panels or generators driven by wind turbines. Hydrogen fuel and fuel cell sectors have been making progress in China where it is expected that the number of hydrogen fuelling stations will exceed 10,000 by 2050. A whitepaper issued by the Chinese Government last year indicated that about 10% of the energy sector in the country is expected to be fuelled by hydrogen. At the G-20 forum last year, representatives from Tokyo, United States and European Union signed a joint statement declaring their intention to cooperate towards hydrogen and hydrogen fuel technologies. Currently, Japan and South Korea are leading in hydrogen fuel cell markets. The South Korean Government has set a target of having more than ten thousand fuel cell vehicles in the road by the end of 2020 while Toyota in Japan plans to increase its manufacture to 30,000 cars per year by the end of 2020.
Although electric vehicles themselves emit no toxic chemicals to the air, the manufacturing adds to greenhouse gases. The problem with Hydrogen Fuel is that even though it is available in abundance, it is awfully expensive. Its storage is very difficult, and it is highly inflammable. Many researchers are still finding a way to design storage tanks to store hydrogen safely.
Can Solar Cars Become a Reality in the Future
Solar cars might seem like the most concrete solution to emissions from transportation, but it is severely limited in its features. The conception of solar cars being commercialised for personal use in the future is very questionable.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, on 2017 National Governors Association meeting said that, “The least efficient place to put solar is on the car.” Of all the energy solar panels absorb from the sun, only about 18% (maximum) of it is converted into electricity- which already is less efficient. To be able to generate more electricity, more panels must be built on the car. Solar energy cannot be collected during night and cloudy days (when even if collected, their efficiency would be way too low). The fact that it depends on daily weather is highly unpredictable makes solar powered cars unreliable. Electrical vehicles are generally more assuring than solar powered cars because the weather can be unpredictable. Solar cars cannot be parked in closed parking lots. They must be parked in open spaces to collect solar energy and store it in their batteries.
Secondly, the initial investment to build solar panels would be very high and even though solar panels themselves do not release toxic emissions, the manufacturing involved in its making would add to the pollution. In addition to it, solar cars do not run at the same speed as EVs or cars with ICE. They also cannot be run for unlimited distance. If any part of the car needs replacement, it will be expensive as these products are not manufactured in large numbers.
Solar cars are also limited in their design as more solar panels will have to be attached on the surface of the car to increase its efficiency. Solar cars are one of the greener sources of energy but it cannot be popular in the future because of these restrictions. It is necessary to change our means of transport to sustainable alternatives in order to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and control the increasing levels of air pollution. For this, EVs are a more credible and reliable means of transport. Hydrogen fuels will be reliable too insofar as the ways to store hydrogen safely is figured out.
Dr. Hao Wu, Geneviève Alberts et al, “New market. New entrants. New challenges. Battery Electric Vehicles”, Deloitte Publication 2019.
Eric Forsta Thacher, A Solar Car Primer: a guide to Design and Construction of Solar-Powered Vehicles, p. no. vii, viii, ix, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2015.
Nathan Peraino, Ardeshir Faghri, Dian Yuan, Yifan Wang, Michael Vaughan, Mingxin Li. Feasibility of Powering All Vehicles with Electricity from Solar and Wind Energy. Journal of Energy and Natural Resources. Vol. 8, No. 4, 2019, pp. 127-136.
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