Suggestion No. 1: Put Solar Panels Where the Sun Shines

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to focus in on suggestions for our newly elected president and congress regarding actions they might wish to consider in addressing the world’s climate crisis.

My first suggestion is to establish a program whereby citizens who live in less than optimal solar zones might still be able to install solar collectors in areas where their energy (and hence financial) return is maximized.

I have been driving “Sparky”, my electric car for the past ten years.It is fast, reliable, and financially a success, particularly at gas prices above $4/gallon.Last year, in an offering to CNN’s Youtube Debate, I proposed to ask the candidates the single question:

“Why aren’t we all driving on sunlight?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_lSxhTatUU

The concept is simple:every electric car is capable of “running on sunlight” through the simple expedient of using solar panels to capture sunlight and delivering the electricity they produce to the batteries of the car.

In practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that.Several points need to be made here:

1) Can a car run on solar cells attached to the car?No.An important point needs to be understood — -there is only so much energy in a square foot of sunlight.Even if every square inch of a modern car’s surface were to be covered with some kind of “super solar cell” (one that could convert 100% of all the sunlight falling on it to electricity), it would not be able to supply the car’s energy needs.

2)How do you supply electricity to your car if your panels are at home and the car is on the road?You don’t.Driving on sunlight does not mean that a car is continuously hooked to its panels.Instead, it works like this:your panels collect the sunlight and convert it to direct current (DC).The DC current is then changed to AC current (the kind of electricity you use in running your home) by running it through an “inverter”.The inverter is then hooked directly to the electrical system of your home.What this does is to supply your home with usable electricity produced from sunlight.When this happens, your electric meter will actually slow down or even begin to run backward because you are not drawing power from your utility (“the grid”).In reality, you begin to build up a “bank account” of solar-generated electricity.The size of that account will depend upon how many panels are on your roof, and how much sunlight falls on them.Your electric car arrives home after work and you plug it in.It then withdraws the electricity you collected during the day and stores it in the car’s batteries for tomorrow’s commute.

3)What happens when the sun doesn’t shine?No problem.You install a large enough solar collector system to provide more power than the car can use when the sun shines to cover those days when no power is collected because of clouds.This is an important point to understand:a solar powered car is based upon annual solar collection, not daily solar collection.So your collector system is sized based upon the number of amp hours needed by your car in a given year.In Sparky’s case, he needs 2 amp hours of power to go one mile.If I intend to drive 10,000 miles per year, I need a system that will generate 20,000 amp hours of electricity in a year, most of which will be collected in the summer months.

It should become immediately obvious from this, that the amount of sunlight falling on the panels over as given year is the critical defining factor in the size of a solar system needed to create a truly “solar powered car”.This brings me to the specific point of this discussion:don’t put your panels where the sun doesn’t shine.

I live in Olympia, Washington.Several years ago, I was stunned to find that my city has less sunlight than any other major city in the world — -I was scanning a list of cities arranged by their solar standing, and there it was, drop dead last!My initial reaction was:Well, if I can demonstrate that solar works in Olympia, Washington, then that will show the world that it can work anywhere!Maybe that makes a great PR point, but it makes a terrible financial one — -it would only demonstrate how expensive it is to drive a solar powered car.

So that brings up the central point for policy makers:the government needs to establish a mechanism whereby a person who drives an electric car in Olympia, Washington, can buy solar panels and install them in Yuma, Arizona…or Needles, California.I submit that government needs to obtain large tracts of solar-rich land and create a “solar farm” where individual citizens can install solar equipment that sends electricity into the grid so that they can in clear conscience declare that the electricity they are pulling off the grid at their house is indeed “solar energy”.It makes no real difference that the specific electron that enters Sparky didn’t actually come from my Yuma solar panel — -the important point is that, on a national basis, I am putting as much electricity into the system as I am pulling out.

There are many advantages to this concept.

1) By centralizing the solar collectors of car owners from all over the country, a single maintenance man can service a large number of customers, reducing the maintenance costs of owning solar collectors;

2) A standardized model of collector can be decided upon which will result in the benefits of specialized large scale production (economies of scale);

3) Individual power inverters (one of the expensive components of a stand-alone system) would be replaced by large scale inverters, thereby substantially reducing this cost center;

4) Eventually, individual solar panels will be replaced by community solar collection systems (solar generating plants) which will further increase the return on the solar dollars invested.

It should be immediately apparent that this concept would not be limited to electric car owners.It is equally applicable to homeowners and businesses that want to “operate on sunlight”.While government is the logical candidate to be the entity to facilitate the creation of these solar farms, it can just as easily be accomplished by a co-op of car and/or home owners.

One thing that government can do, as a matter of policy, is to insure that the money paid per amp hour from an owner’s panel be equal to that he must pay at home when he withdraws his electricity from the local grid.In other words, retail for retail.Indeed, it seems like a great candidate for a tax-type credit that would encourage all of us to convert our cars, our homes and our businesses to solar.

Richard

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3 Responses to “Suggestion No. 1: Put Solar Panels Where the Sun Shines”

  1. Terry Ryder says:

    About: “Can a car run on solar cells attached to the car? No.” You mention a “modern” car cannot run on solar cells attached to the car. This is true because of the weight of the modern car. I realize this.

    For interest sake though, I wish to tell you about a man who just broke the ‘World Solar EV Distance Record of 15,000 Km’. He drove across Canada and up to the Arctic Circle this summer (08) in a car that is totally powered by the sun’s energy captured by many solar cells covering the body of the car.

    http://www.xof1.com/home.html

    http://www.xof1.com/

    He is a member of our Electric Car Club – Durham Electric Vehicle Association. His name is Marcelo da Luz. The car accomplishes this feat due to several reasons, including: it is very light and it is very aerodynamic. The downside is that the car is not road legal. It is not “modern”. Being very light, it would not fair well in an accident.

  2. solar world says:

    At first it seemed like a joke, but investors of SolarWorld weren’t laughing: Shares of the German solar energy company tanked on Wednesday, after it announced plans to buy four plants from General Motors’ German subsidiary Opel and

  3. Solar Powered Cars says:

    very nice stuff. this is exactly what i was searching for. thanks for providing such a great deal of information to me.

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