Reframing the argument
There has been much in the news lately about Ford’s new C-MAX Solar Energi concept vehicle. This plug-in hybrid uses the power of the sun to provide enough electricity to charge its battery during the course of the day.
The big news here, of course, is that there are three fully functional solar panels on the roof of the car. The bigger news is that sitting above the solar panels is what’s known as a Fresnel lens to focus the energy of the sun even more intensely upon these solar panels. The result is that the sun can recharge the C-MAX Solar Energi battery while you are at work. First used to focus and intensify the lamp in a tower for use in lighthouses, the Fresnel lens has found a multitude of applications since – none, we feel, as innovative as the use that Ford is putting it to here.
Since the C-MAX is a plug-in hybrid, its fully electric range is limited to about 21 miles before the internal combustion engine kicks on to power you on the rest of your journey about town. If needed, the plug-in part of the equation can be used if there is no sun, or you just wish to charge your vehicle at night.
While many have stated that you can only drive 21 miles using solar power, we have decided to present the opposite side of the tale. If you indeed live in an environment that will allow you to benefit by this solar powered roof throughout the year, and you use up all of this free energy each day, you will be able to drive 7,665 miles each year entirely on solar power. While our driving does not represent that of the typical household, when we sold our 24 month old 2011 LEAF and acquired our 2013 LEAF, the 2011 had just turned 12,000 miles. In other words, we could have driven our first LEAF almost entirely without paying for any additional energy. True our 12,000 miles is less than the 15,000 miles plus that these solar panels provide, but some of our daily drives did, in fact, exceed 21 miles. Still, I believe that we would have been extremely satisfied with this result.
Nissan throws a tiny solar panel on the rear spoiler of the SL model, but it is used only for trickle charging the 12-volt battery. Fords use of solar panels enhanced with the Fresnel lens shows a real possibility of what we may actually see making its way to some of our electric vehicles (EVs) of the future. True, they may not provide all of the power needed by an EV, and they will not provide any benefit if there is no sunshine available, but we see huge potential for this technology especially in light-duty commercial EV applications (think Nissan e-NV200). Fleet managers are all about reducing the cost of operation. Just think if they could drive over 7,500 miles free each year.