Future of Solar Cells – An Optional Accessory to a Necessity in the Automotive Industry

Increasing interest towards zero-emission vehicles increased spending from Federal Government towards electric vehicles (EVs) and production plans from vehicle manufacturers are irrefutable proof towards a future dominated by EVs. Some industry critics have opposed EV citing the increase in consumption of electricity and its impact on the carbon footprint.

One solution is to run the EVs using the power generated from renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and so on. In the future, EVs would be powered by electricity from grid, generated using solar power or from solar charging stations.

Major challenges for solar cells in the automotive industry are the stringent regulations and standards that need to be satisfied, design challenges, which are being addressed through development of thin-film technologies and third-generation solar cells that are flexible and easily mountable, and high cost-to-power ratio for solar cells. However, over the next -6 years, price of solar cells is expected to drop, improving the cost-to-power ratio, thereby making solar technologies affordable on a larger scale within the automotive domain. Following the high demand for solar applications, pricing of thin-film technologies is expected to drop from $1.50–$2.20 per watt to $0.65-$0.90 per watt by 2020.

Currently, the market for solar technology applications in the automotive industry is limited to advanced roof solutions. Solar panels mounted on the roofs to power a fan in the interior of the vehicle to keep the temperature low. These applications are now offered as optional features in vehicles manufactured by Audi AG, Volkswagen, Seat, Toyota Prius from Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., Karma Fisker from "Fisker Automotive, Inc.", Pininfarina Bluecar from "PININFARINA S.P.A." and so on.

Future applications being developed using solar cells will be cost intensive; however, a reduction in the price of solar cells will make solar solutions affordable and cost effective.

Solar cells exhibit low efficiencies of around 10.0 per cent and hence, the power generated from solar panels on cars will power the auxiliary devices, such as cooling fans, music systems and so on; it will not be sufficient to drive the vehicle or charge the batteries fully. In order to power an EV fully, solar panels need to be mounted on large surface areas. Design of a conventional car deters the number of solar panels that could be mounted, thereby leading to low power generation. Alternatively, power generated from solar panels on cars can be fed to the grid through the charging points and, in return, rebated rates can be obtained for power usage.

On a larger scale, solar infrastructure, such as covered parking lots with solar panels, could be used to generate electricity to power the grid and reused to charge the EVs, thereby invalidating the overuse of fossil fuels to generate power.

Vehicles such as buses, trucks, trams and trains have large surface areas that are more suitable for mounting solar panels. Power generated from these solar panels could be used to power auxiliary devices. Photovoltaic train (PVTRAIN) project launched in Italy was the first of its kind in the European region to have solar panels embedded on the roof to power auxiliary devices. Similarly, power generated from these solar panels could be used in long-haul refrigerated trucks to keep their batteries topped up and in buses to power the lighting and air conditioning systems.

The solar technologies market potential is luring participants from the automotive value chain and other diverse fields. Since 2007, Honda Motor Co., Ltd, through its subsidiary Honda Soltec Co Ltd (Soltec), has been manufacturing and supplying thin-film cells using Copper Indium Gallium Di-Selenide (CIGS). Soltec has production plants both in Japan and across the world, and it offers solar solutions to a wide variety of industries.

Robert Bosch Gmbh has shown interest towards development of solar solutions through its takeover of ersol Solar Energy AG, one of Europe’s major participants with expertise across the solar value chain. Globally, growth potential of the solar industry has attracted large companies to diversify. Some notable companies such as Moser Baer India Limited have entered into both crystalline and thin-film technologies market.

Solar cells will be used in vehicles in the future; however, the extent to which they will be used and the type of solar cells are unknown. Further analysis of the value chain and solar cell applications being developed for automotive systems is the focus of a new Frost & Sullivan study titled "Executive Analysis of the Market for Solar Technology Applications in the European Automotive Industry".