No one can predict the future. Especially the automotive industry when it comes to propulsion. We know fossil fuels are finite, and that there truly is no such thing as a totally clean vehicle because all types of power generation cause some emissions somewhere, even if it’s not coming from the tailpipe. Which means manufacturers are throwing a lot of ideas at the wall to see what will stick. Most of this craziness is due to increasing government regulations that are demanding we make ridiculous mpg within the next decade. Can it be done? Possibly, but it also means your next entry-level vehicle might be $50,000. This is why manufacturers are seeking answers anywhere and everywhere. The problem is, while something sounds great in theory, the solution often leads to more questions. It’s a vicious circle that probably explains why so many automotive engineers are bald.
Currently on the market, we have cars that are driven by gasoline, diesel, electrical power, hybrid power, hydrogen, natural gas, propane, and McDonald’s French fries’ oil. There’s probably more, but the brain aches just thinking about it.
Ford Motor Company, like every other manufacturer, has a team of really smart people trying to figure out how it’s going to make its vehicles achieve 54.5 mpg by 2025 without resorting to creative accounting. One solution is to use solar power, like many are using in their homes. First shown at the Consumer Electronics Show last year, the C-MAX Solar Energi builds on the C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, but goes a step further by using solar power to deliver electricity to the vehicle’s batteries.
Recently, we had a chance to gain some insight on the C-MAX Solar Energi vehicle. In concept, the vehicle makes a lot of sense, especially for states that get plenty of sunshine most of the year (California, Arizona, Nevada, and the rest of the Southwest).
In partnership with SunPower, this special C-MAX features a roof made from 1.5 square meters of high-efficiency, metal-backed, high-density thin silicon solar cells. However, grabbing solar power isn’t as easy as tanning in the backyard for an hour or so. Alone, the panels only can generate about 300 watts, not enough to charge the battery. More energy needs to be harnessed and concentrated to provide enough juice to move this 3,900-pound vehicle down the road at highway speeds for a reasonable amount of mileage. With the C-MAX Solar Energi, that needed power is generated via a solar concentrator, which uses a special Fresnel (a flat lens made up of a number of concentric rings, designed to reduce spherical aberration) lens to direct sunlight to the cells. It works like a magnifying glass, but is designed to track the sun as it moves east to west, pulling in enough power to equal a four-hour battery charge. The concentrator is an acrylic canopy that sits over the entire vehicle, and the easiest way to achieve maximum tracking is to move the car, not the concentrator. The C-MAX Solar Energi will move in one-inch increments throughout the charging process, tracking the sun for optimal saturation. There are 800 sensors that will infinitely adjust the tracking system for maximum absorption.
Once fully charged, the vehicle is estimated to have the same range as the conventional C-MAX Energi, up to 620 miles, including 21 miles solely on EV power, and achieve a total of 100+ MPGe. The C-MAX Solar Energi also has a conventional charge port so you can still power up from the traditional grid if you’re away from home. Outside of the solar panels on the roof, this vehicle is identical to the production C-MAX Energi, with no additional interior features or gauges.
If you’re wondering why the push is on for alternate power sources instead of the electrical charging that many are focusing on now, just look at history. In 1930, the average household used 550 kilowatt hours per year. In 2010, we were up to 11,500 kilowatt hours per year. And today we’re using more electronics than ever. The emphasis on electric vehicles may be viable for now, but in the future, that energy source will have to become almost wholly dependent on renewables. There’s a Clean Energy Standard Grid that shows the composition of our electricity use and, currently (no pun intended), the largest share, almost half at 44 percent, is based on coal, with natural gas and nuclear power both about half of that number. The goal is to reduce coal to 20 percent, with the distribution leaning more toward natural gas and renewables such as solar power, which fits right in line with the C-MAX Solar Energi concept.
Will solar roof panels solve all the problems? Not yet. There’s still plenty of questions, including year-round usability, maintenance and replacement costs, structural safety, build costs, infrastructure, reliability, excess taxation, and more. The questions list is a long one, which is why this is still a “concept” vehicle. It’s possible that. in a few years, another source of energy might be found that’s cheaper and easier to produce and use, i.e., Photon technology, human generators, magnets and who knows what else (someone call Area 51 and ask what the aliens are using). But for now, we have to applaud Ford for trying new things and searching for the answer. As some anonymous person said, “there is merit in the attempt, and a whole lot accomplished along the way.”