This 'solar powered' Chinese car is more of a gimmick, than a revolution

October 17 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Transportation   Year: 2008   Rating: 2

Has China developed the ultimate vehicle? A cheap, solar powered car? Not quite.

While the ‘solar car’ concept makes a great viral story for web readers, it is not a revolution for the auto industry. Powering electric cars takes a lot more than putting solar panels on the roof. We need viable infrastructure and tremendous amounts of stored energy density to make a real transition into electric vehicles.

China’s solar powered car? Auto News reported that Zhejiang 001 Group has developed a solar powered car for under $6,000. Within hours the story was picked up by Gas2.0, the Huffington Post, and dozens of eco-energy blogs hinting of how cheaply solar powered cars could be made, but (sadly) only available in China.

The vehicle was demonstrated at the 29th Zhejiang International Bicycles and Electric-powered Cars Exhibition. The solar panels are simply placed on the roof and not integrated into the vehicle’s body. And it reportedly takes 30 hours of direct sunlight to charge the batteries that will drive up to 90 miles.

Electric Vehicles need Energy density
The good news is that electric vehicles are coming. We have highlighted recent electric vehicle commitments of production vehicles (2009-2011) from automakers GM, Nissan, Tata Motors-, BYD, and Chevrolet.

So why is this solar powered cars more a gimmick, than a revolution?

Reason #1 Energy Storage (Read on…)

Confusion over ‘electric’
Today we power our cars using liquid fuels and combustion engines. You cannot put electricity from solar or nuclear energy inside your gas tank.

The only viable alternative to combustion engines is an electric motor. Here’s the catch! That ‘electric’ motor is likely to be powered by a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. So a ‘hydrogen’ car is really an electric car. We are merely storing the electricity via the chemical bonds of hydrogen.

In the 1990s, the hype was based around fuel cells. Today, the eco-hope hype is batteries. But the car is not an iPod, and batteries alone cannot transform the global auto industry.

The key to successfully launching an era of electric vehicles will rest on our ability to advance all three energy storage systems of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. So there is not reason to pick a winner!

Together these systems can equal the combination of high energy density (via chemical bonds) of gasoline (fuel cells), ability to generate bursts of electron power (capacitors), and capture regenerative braking power (batteries) to match today’s vehicles.

The world will also have to build infrastructure to support electric vehicles. This is why we have also featured stories on electric vehicle infrastructure startups like Better Project and Warren Buffet’s $233 million investment in Chinese battery maker BYD, and $500 million plan to extend France’s grid to vehicles by utility giant EDF Looking ahead we expect distributed energy appliances to convert hydrogen via electrolysis and from natural gas right in our homes. But first, we need to extend the electricity grid to support battery powered cars.

Does the future of solar cars depend on hydrogen?
Solar energy is a wonderful way to capture energy. But it’s major shortcoming is energy density. The most immediate solution is to use solar energy to recharge batteries. But we cannot escape the cost and performance challenges of battery applications for vehicles. Batteries are better in non-transportation applications.

The other option is to store solar energy in the form of a chemical bond in hydrogen. Then convert the hydrogen into electricity via a fuel cell.

We have featured stories on MIT’s Dan Nocera’s breakthrough of solar hydrogen storage-, and an exclusive interview with Stan Ovshinsky who both believe that a solar-hydrogen combination could someday create a viable alternative to the energy density of fossil fuels.

Of course building thin film solar panels built into future vehicle designs is a great idea. As long as consumers don’t mind the aesthetic differences of plastic vs paint.

But it does not solve our problem, and might only add to the confusion over how we transform the auto industry. What is certain though is that it can make for a popular story on the web.

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