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Solar Powered Cars

Current trends show that the world could switch to 100% solar power and 100% electric cars as soon as 2030.

This past October I drove across the country with some friends. We were in an old van getting terrible gas mileage and an idea kept running through my mind. If I built an electric van with solar panels on the roof – could we cross the country without using any resources? I got back home to the east coast and talked it over with my dad, who is a mechanical engineer. We did some rough calculations and determined that the batteries and solar panels that exist right now are too expensive and inefficient to make it possible.

My solar powered van idea was crushed. But it got me thinking – and reading a lot – about solar power and electric cars. I had always been under the false impression that both are growing very slowly and not making any kind of huge impact on the world. It seemed to me like this was common knowledge. Maybe in 50 or 100 years renewable energy will take off. But not now. And probably not in my lifetime either.

As I dug deeper into books and articles, I came across some really intelligent people who believe change is actually happening a lot faster than many of us realize. Tony Seba, from Stanford University, writes in Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation that he is certain the world will switch to 100% electric cars and 100% solar power by 2030, and maybe even sooner. Futurist Ray Kurzweil also predicts an all-solar world within 15 years.1 Elon Musk has made his own bold predictions, and is well on the way to making them come true with Tesla Motors and Solar City.

All electric cars and solar power by 2030 can be hard to imagine if you look at the way things are today. Both represent less than 1% of their markets. But, when you take a look at the steady growth that has been happening for decades – and project it out into the future – a different picture presents itself.

Continuous improvements year after year have brought solar panels and electric cars to a point where they are just starting to make sense for every day people like you and me. Battery technology has gotten a lot better, and it’s providing the missing element that’s allowing them both to thrive. The way the numbers look, my solar powered van idea might be possible after all.

Solar Power

As with any brand new technology, the solar panels first developed in the 1960’s were incredibly expensive. They were definitely not being used to power anyone’s home but they did allow some really cool outer space missions to happen. For the next 40 years, huge improvements brought the cost down, but not enought to allow solar to compete with fossil fuels. Then, around the year 2000 a tipping point was reached.

When I found out how fast solar has been growing I was shocked. Since the year 2000, the total amount installed wordwide increased 200 times.2 If the growth continues at this rate for another 15 years there will be a massive 19 TW (terawatts) of solar installed by 2030.3 That will be enough to cover most of the world’s projected energy demand – a slightly more massive 24 TW.4

This type of rapid growth is hard to imagine when we look around most neighborhoods in the United States today. Right now solar generates about 1% of our energy. But, there are some interesting examples of places around the world that are a little further along in the process. Germany, an early leader, generates 7% of its electricity from solar.5 Australia went from 1% solar to 20% in only 4 years.6 It looks like we are on track to see a similar solar explosion here.

Skeptics argue that the rate will slow down, but this isn’t the first time a new product has emerged that rapidly replaced its predecessor. After refrigerators, color TV’s, and cell phones emerged, their growth rate actually increased. When a disruptive technology is introduced, its sales start slowly, then gain a little traction, and then shoot up sky high and drive the competition out of business.

What makes solar a disruptive technology? The simple answer is that it uses resources more efficiently than its competition. Making energy with coal, oil and natural gas is extremely resource intensive. The fuel source must be extracted, transported, refined, transported again, only to be burned and then gone forever. Nuclear power has its own issues – extremely expensive construction, waste disposal, and decommissioning – not to mention the consequences of catastrophic accidents.

Once solar panels are built they will generate electricity for 30 to 40 years with zero resources being put into the system. Even at the end of their long life, the materials within them can be recycled to build more solar panels.

The rapid price drop is what’s driving this explosive growth of solar. Every time the worldwide installation of solar doubles (which happens about every two years), the cost drops by 22%.7 This is referred to as the “learning curve”. As the cost of solar continues to fall even further, it will become harder and harder to compete with its level of efficiency.

Batteries

Skeptics argue that solar can never be our only source of energy because it can’t provide power at night. This is where batteries come into the picture. Since 2007, lithium ion batteries have been dropping in cost by 14% per year.8 At the same time, constant improvements have allowed them to hold power longer, charge faster, and last longer. “Solar plus storage” means charging a battery with solar during the day and then drawing from it at night – and this is the real distributed energy revolution. In places like Hawaii where energy is more expensive, and California where incentives are better, it is already a better deal than what the electric company is charging. With the steady drop in the price of solar panels and batteries, solar plus storage will become cost competitive in half of the US states by 2020 and in all 50 states by 2030.9

As with solar panels, lithium ion batteries have a “learning curve”. Every time the worldwide production doubles, the cost of the batteries drops by 9%.8 Tesla Motors is building a solar powered factory in the Nevada desert that will more than double the worldwide production of these batteries. The plan is to make this the first of many such factories. LG Chem and iPhone manufacturer Foxconn have followed Tesla’s lead and started building their own giant battery factories.

As production volume keeps increasing, costs will drop even further. More money will be available for research and development which will continue the steady improvements in the batteries we have now and lead to breakthroughs in the development of new kinds of batteries. When you have a massive industry pouring money into a product, improvements will happen. Battery technology has three: solar energy storage, consumer electronics, and electric cars.

Electric cars

Until just a few years ago, electric cars weren’t taken seriously. Most people thought they were uncool and unaffordable. The cars built by Tesla Motors have definitely proven their coolness. And, the affordable part is happening sooner than many people expected.

Like solar power, electric cars are taking off right now because they use resources more efficiently than their competition. A gasoline car is only 20% efficient – most of the gasoline put into a car is wasted in the form of heat.10 Electric cars are 95% efficient.6 This is why the cost of charging them is equivalent to filling up a gasoline car for $1 per gallon.11 And, with the car plugged in at night, you will always wake up and start your day with a full tank.

This efficiency means saving resources and reducing carbon emissions. It also means insanely fast acceleration and high performance – Tesla's Model S is the fastest accelerating four door car in the world.12

The electric car also offers a much more reliable drivetrain. To provide forward motion, a gasoline car requires over 2000 moving parts. An electric car has under 30.13 That’s a lot of parts that won’t be there to constantly break down – costing the driver time, money, and stress. The Nissan Leaf’s drivetrain has proven to be 25 times more reliable than a gasoline car.14 Tesla is working on a drivetrain that will last a million miles.15 The battery lasts a decade.6 Even the brakes are hardly ever used because of “regenerative braking”, which uses the motor to help recharge the battery.

Short range, long charging times, and high prices held the electric car back in the past. But, the cars of today have blown past all of these obstacles. You can already buy a Tesla Model S that has 300 mile range, pull it into a solar powered supercharging station, and replenish 150 miles of range in just 20 minutes.16 And, Tesla offers free charging on long trips for the life of the car. Just like my solar powered van, once the panels are built the energy costs nothing.

Only one in a thousand cars on the road today is fully electric. The cost of batteries is the only thing still keeping them from going mainstream. Yes, there are affordable cars out now like the Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e, and Ford Focus Electric, but they all get less than 100 miles of range. The general public demands a car that has at least 200 mile range.

In an electric car, roughly one third of the cost is in the battery.17 So, more range means more money. But remember, these are the same batteries we discussed earlier that have three massive industries driving down their price. This has resulted in two revolutionary cars that are about to come out. Tesla’s Model 3 and Chevy’s Bolt will each cost under $30,000 (after tax incentives) and will provide 200+ miles of range.

Solar power, batteries, and electric cars support each other’s success in many ways. There are thousands – soon to be millions – of electric cars plugged in at any given time. All of this battery storage can be used to absorb spikes on the grid. After an electric car’s battery reaches the end of its life, it can still hold 60-80% of its charge and go on to live its second life storing solar power full time. This is even starting to be written into the purchase contract, which lowers the price of the car.6

As the price of solar power continues to drop, lower electricity prices will make it even cheaper to charge an electric car – not to mention cleaner. These benefits definitely do not apply to cars that run on gasoline.

All of this has led to a rapid increase in the number of electric cars purchased each year. At the beginning of 2015 there were 740,000 electric cars on the road worldwide. By the end of the year the number had increased by 57% to 1,290,000 cars.18 If this rate is maintained, by 2025 all of the 82 million new cars being purchased each year will be electric.19

2030 and beyond

What’s happening today is enough to get most people really excited. But, a look into the not-too-distant future is truly mind blowing. Exponentially improving technologies can take us in amazing and unexpected directions. The computer that I’m writing this on, the internet, and the smartphone were beyond our wildest dreams just 20 years ago. The combination of solar power, batteries, and electric cars will transform how we live and work in ways that we can’t even imagine yet.

It is exciting to be watching a story like this as it unfolds. Every day there are new updates and breakthroughs. What was once said to be impossible is being done again and again. It looks like I might be building that solar powered van after all.


References

  1. Max Miller, “Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years,” Big Think interview, 17 March 2011. (URL : accessed 31 March 2016).
  2. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2015,” Renewable Energy Section, BP.  (URL : Accessed 28 March 2016)
    “Global Market Outlook for Solar Power 2015-2019,” SolarPower Europe.  (URL : Accessed 30 March 2016)
  3. Tony Seba, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation: How Silicon Valley Will Make Oil, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Coal, Electric Utilities and Conventional Cars Obsolete by 2030, (Tony Seba, self-published, 2014), p. 37
  4. "International Energy Outlook 2013," U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Published online July 2013.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016).
  5. "Snapshot of Global PV 1992-2014," International Energy Agency — Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme.  Published online 30 March 2015.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  6. Michael Kent, “EVs, renewables & energy storage: The unstoppable trio of energy’s future,” Charged Electric Vehicles Magazine.  Published online 7 January 2015.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  7. Seba, Clean Disruption, p. 13
  8. Björn Nykist and Måns Nilsson, “Rapidly falling costs of battery packs for electric vehicles,” Nature Climate Change 5 (2015): pp. 329–332.  Published online 23 March 2015. Accessed 28 March 2016.
  9. Bob Wile, “Barclays Has The Best Explanation Yet Of How Solar Will Detroy America’s Electric Utilities,” Business Insider. Published online May 28, 2014. (URL : accessed 13 April 2016).
  10. Seba, Clean Disruption, p. 104
  11. Max Baumhefner, "Buck-a-Gallon Gas for Life," National Resources Defense Council.  Published online 18 November 2011.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  12. Christian Seabaugh, "Lightning Strikes Twice: The World’s Quickest Four-Door is An Electric Sedan," Motor Trend.  Published online 28 October 2015.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  13. Tony Seba, "Technology Megatrends Disrupting Public & Private Transportation," Published online 19 November 2015.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  14. Russ Finley, "Nissan Leaf Drive Train is 25 Times More Reliable Than Conventional Cars," Energy Trends Insider.  Published online 13 April 2015. (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  15. Elon Musk, "Three Dog Day," Tesla Motors Blog.  Published online 17 July 2015.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2015)
  16. Tesla Motors, "Supercharging,"(URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  17. Seba, Clean Disruption, p. 120
  18. "Monthly Plugin Scorecard," Inside EVs.  Published online April 2016.  (URL : Accessed 13 April 2016)
  19. Seba, Clean Disruption, p. 148

© 2016 Patrick Walker Russell