Alternative Fuel and Transportation

Published on October 25th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Solar Power Your Car

Despite prototype solar vehicles at car shows, solar auto racing competitions, and the upcoming (and pricey) Tesla Motors electric vehicle that can be powered by sun rays, the marketing of solar-powered vehicles to the general public seems a long way off.

If you are hobbyist with a penchant for solar technology however, time is on your side—with a low-cost kit, you can start building your very own solar vehicle today.  If you already own a hybrid electric vehicle, you can upgrade it with some sleek solar cells to solar power your travels.

Powerful Potential in Solar Energy

Hit the Road with Solar Panel Power

After moving to rural Maine, Art Haines, mechanical designer and creator of the SUNN electric vehicle, wanted to create a solar-powered vehicle as a functional hobby.  With the goal of desiging a small, low-speed vehicle that could get him to town and back, he began work on a prototype as a project with local high-school students.  The result: the first SUNNev solar car.

The car was designed and created from scratch—not converted from another electric vehicle such as a golf cart—to maximize the potential of both its function and the position of the solar panels.  This lightweight car is about 40” wide and 84” long, fitting two average-sized people comfortably.  It has a full, enclosed body with windows and a windshield, windshield wipers, disc brakes, seat belts, turn signals, and lights.

As a low-speed vehicle (LSV) or a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), the top speed of the SUNNev is only 25 mph, which is functional for most residential, city, and town streets, but forbidden on high-speed roads and highways.

Within federal regulations created in 1998, NEVs are titled, registered, and insured much like a regular vehicle, and allowed to travel on streets that post speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.  They are currently legal in nearly all 50 states, though each state has its own specific regulations.

An electric vehicle differs from a gas-powered vehicle in that it lacks an internal combustion engine, as the car battery is powered by an electrical source.

  • To recharge the car battery, people generally plug their electric vehicles into a home power source.  This municipal power is generated by any number of means: coal, hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, or any combination of these.
  • While the renewable energy sources (like wind and solar) are the cleanest, electrical power sources are typically cleaner, more efficient, and much cheaper than using gasoline.
  • With a solar panel on the front hood, the SUNNev is recharged by the sun while at rest.  On a full charge, the vehicle can travel up to 30 miles.  Another option is plugging into an electric source to be charged.

While the low-speed electric vehicle may not be the most practical commuter car for everyone, there are speed, size, and maintenance improvements coming soon.  Tesla Motors, for example, is currently taking orders for its 2009 Roadster, an electric sports car that can reach speeds of up to 125 mph and travel up to 220 miles per charge.  The Roadster has an equivalent of about 256 miles per gallon, which is approximately $.02 per mile, according to Tesla’s website.

While Tesla’s new roadster can be charged by any electrical source, Tesla Motors is partnering with Solar City, a company that offers installation of a home solar service that can then be used to power the vehicle.  But with a whopping base-price of $109,000, the Roadster is not quite accessible to the average American consumer…

Solar Powered Car Speeds Down the Roadway

Other Solar Powered Options

If you already are a hybrid gas-electric car owner, there are a few new businesses that will convert your vehicle to run on solar power.  Solar Electrical Vehicles, the brainchild of Greg Johanson, a solar vehicle land-speed record holder, has currently set up shop in Southern California.  The company fits solar panels to the Toyota Prius, Highlander EV, Rav4 EV, the Ford Escape Hybrid, and more.  The solar panels on these vehicles can generate up to 20 miles of charge per day without requiring a plug-in.  If you don’t already own a hybrid vehicle, the demand has far exceeded the production so there may be a bit of a wait list.

If you are looking for an inexpensive, around-town vehicle for today, the SUNNev solar car might offer just what you need.  The do-it-yourself solar powered car kit can be ordered from the SUNN website for $5,500, and includes nearly everything you need to get your car up and running.

This kit was designed with step-by-step, illustrated instructions, requires no special tools, and is estimated to take approximately 80 to 120 hours to complete.  You can even choose your own color and configuration.  (Compact and pick-up truck models are also available).  Phone and e-mail support is available too.  Things that are not included are the battery and additional solar panels for the roof, due to shipping costs, but which you can get locally at a reasonable price.

The idea behind electric vehicles, hybrids, and solar cars is to reduce or eliminate fuel consumption, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and save money on fuel costs.  But while waiting for these new technologies to be perfected and mass marketed, damage is being done to our environment and our wallets.

For now, consolidating errands, using bikes, busses, and feet more often, and carpooling seem to all be part of the solution.  But maybe investing in a low-speed electric vehicle like the SUNNev—and having a little fun learning how to build your very own vehicle—will help bring us that much closer to reducing our energy consumption.  To learn more about Art Haines and his homemade solar cars, you can watch a short film by New Farmer Films on You Tube called Infinity Miles Per Gallon: Art Haines and the Solar Car.

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