TECH TRENDS — Solar-Powered Vehicles Hit the Road

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(Image by Jukka Niittymaa from Pixabay)

The phrase “Solar Energy” has become synonymous with renewable energy. It’s been at the top of the green energy list for some time and, with recent advancements, solar-powered devices are becoming cheaper and more widespread. In this three-part series, we will take a deeper look at solar energy, how it’s used to power vehicles scheduled to hit the market this year and what the future looks like for solar-powered vehicles. 

This article will touch on solar energy and how a group of Oregon teens are on the bleeding edge, exploring how to apply it to power vehicles as a green alternative to fossil fuels.

Oregon Solar Car Team

This series is being co-written with two brilliant local teens who have hands-on experience with solar technology. Max Cordell is captain and Katelyn Mawdsley is financial and social media captain of the Oregon Solar Car Team.

This team has a large impact on its members. These high school teens find their hands-on experience incredibly beneficial for future careers. Many enter STEM fields using the skills they have learned. These experiences affect how they look at their future careers and, more importantly, increase their awareness of clean energy and its impact on our planet. 

Mawdsley noted, “This team has become a passion of mine. I care deeply for all living things and I believe using clean energy is humanity’s best chance to ensure their survival.”

They are preparing the team and their solar car for a national event in 2021 held at the Texas Motor Speedway. While the event is called a race by many, its primary focus is to improve solar energy and raise awareness of its capabilities. 

What Is Solar Energy

What we call solar energy is quite simply, energy that has been captured from the sun. Primarily there are two ways this can be done: thermal technology, which uses heat generated by the sun’s light; and photovoltaic cells arranged into a solar panel, which convert light into electricity. We will be focusing on the latter, where most advancements are occurring.

Like many other electrical devices, a primary material used in solar panels is silicon. What makes silicon so special is its ability to conduct electricity without being a metal. The way silicon is arranged in a panel can determine its efficiency as well as its cost. A polycrystalline structure is much easier to produce over the premier monocrystalline panels. Another alternative is amorphous solar cells, which can be bent without being damaged although they are known to be the least efficient. We’ll dive deeper into various solar technologies in Part 2 in this series next month.

Solar Energy Isn’t the Only Contender in Town

Solar energy is one of several renewable energy options. Others include using the motion of wind and water to power wind turbines or hydroelectric dams. Another one that is commonly overlooked is geothermal energy, which uses our planet’s heat as a form of power. While those absolutely have their place in our power grid, they are often quite large or expensive making solar energy a viable alternative.

This isn’t to say that solar energy doesn’t have its downsides. Because it can only be produced in specific conditions, large batteries are required to stockpile the energy. This is an advantage hydro and geothermal power sources have as they are far more consistent. A stable power grid would ideally be composed of multiple types of renewable resources ensuring each source has a backup.

Solar Energy’s Promise

Solar Can Power the Whole World

Scientists estimate that it would take roughly 51.4 billion 350W solar panels to power the entire world’s needs, which would be a solar array generating over 18 TW ( tera watts) of power covering 115,625 square miles or roughly 340 miles long by 340 miles wide. That’s only 1.2 percent of the Sahara Desert or about 60 percent of the Great Basin Desert in the western United States.

As of the end of 2019, the total installed solar power units globally could generate 629 GW of solar power. Total world output would need to be increased over 28 times our current total global capacity. Daunting, but doable. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects total solar power output will increase to almost 5TW by 2050, although many industry pundits believe this is too conservative. Annual year-over-year growth is nearly exponential with many factors having driven down the cost of solar panels and solar roof tiles over 90 percent since 2010. Factories have scaled up and therefore are deriving cost reductions from mass-production. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicts that solar panel prices will drop another 34 percent by 2030.

Solar Energy Combats Climate Change

Solar panels are incredibly versatile in that they can be compact enough to power a calculator or more recently, powerful enough to drive electric cars. The technology world is realizing the effect of fossil fuels on the environment. Thirty five billion tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere per year. This number can be greatly reduced with the production of renewable energy. Katelyn passionately states that “Solar energy will save the ecosystem. I am planning to go into a veterinarian field, so animals and the planet are incredibly important to me! My hopes for the future are that we reduce fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources.”

Solar-Powered Vehicles

Solar cars are rising in popularity. Technology enthusiasts realize solar energy is the future of renewable energy. Solar energy is a zero-emission source and is now cheaper than fossil fuels, which makes it the best alternative.

Hybrid solar cars have been around for a while, which proved the viability of solar-powered vehicles. Hyundai entered the market with its new version of its hybrid car, the Sonata. It was panned by critics as the panels didn’t provide sufficient power, only extending the range by two miles per day. Over the next 12 to 18 months we will see the entry of several production models using solar energy as its primary energy source with batteries providing storage for nights and cloudy days. The new Toyota Prius PHV will be primarily a commuter vehicle with a range of 60 miles per day (25 miles of daily solar range plus 35 miles of battery storage range), The Lightyear One will be the first long-range production automobile with a daily solar range of up to 43 miles plus battery range of 450 miles.

Back to the Oregon Solar Car Team. The team is fortunate to have a partnership with SunPower, who donated the solar cells needed to power the car. Team members hand-solder them to custom-fit the car, then send the panels to California to be laminated. This gives the team a lot of flexibility with installation, with the panels configured for maximum density on the car’s surface. Their goal is to make their car as efficient as possible. Contributing factors to a car’s efficiency include the quality of the parts used, the overall weight, aerodynamics and its mechanical design. 

Competition and Collaboration

The team is faced with all sorts of challenges, including funding, a lack of resources and restrictions on hours they can meet. Fortunately, they are not alone. They receive valuable help from other teams such as Stanford and OSU. For example, Cordell points out, “We received a major donation from Stanford University, providing us their molds for our carbon fiber body, which would have been cost-prohibitive to obtain on our own.” They want to win the competition just like all the other teams, but the camaraderie and collaboration make the race more of a “coopetition,” with everyone cheering each team’s attempt and providing assistance when needed.

The team is a fantastic example of people working together to demonstrate how solar energy works and its enormous potential for society. Remember the names of our fellow Bendites, Cordell and Mawdsley, and their passion for renewable energy, and our planet will no doubt make them leaders in their fields, along with the rest of the team.

Next Up — Part 2

Part two in this series will be a deep dive into the exponential advances in solar technology and how other tech trends, such as software advances, are accelerating solar energy’s evolution.

Part three will peer into our crystal ball to see what the next ten to 20 years may hold for solar energy’s impact on society and the planet. Then we’ll speculate how solar energy will transform our world as we know it by the end of this century.

Find Out More

Oregonsolarcarteam.org; bit.ly/2020-Solar-Cars; bit.ly/Audi-and-Apollo-Power; bit.ly/Solar-Cars

About the Authors

Katelyn Mawdsley is the Financial and Social Media Captain on the Oregon Solar Car Team. Katelyn plans to become a veterinarian and open her own practice. Some of her passions include composing poetry and exploring new places.

Max Cordell has been part of the Oregon Solar Car Team since 2017 and is currently Team Captain. He specializes in programming and electrical systems. In his free time, Max likes exploring new technologies and tinkering with electronics.

Preston Callicott is a “tech-humanist”, advocating for embedding the best of human ideals into all systems we create, especially those driven by Artificial Intelligence. He wants humans to control AI, not the other way around.

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