EVs and solar panels go together like peanut butter and jelly. One thing I’ve noticed in the eight years since starting Evolve KY, Kentucky’s non-profit electric vehicle group, is that typically those with EVs want rooftop solar and those with solar want an EV. So you put those two together and it’s no wonder about the excitement that’s been generated for a vehicle like the three-wheeled Aptera.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Todd Jackson, team manager of the University of Kentucky’s solar car team, on my latest podcast. Todd talks about the history of the team and how their solar cars have evolved over the years. We talked about the unique culture that surrounds working together to solve such a complex engineering challenge with the goal to win races against some big-name schools that are known for their engineering programs — the ultimate prize.
“We are all working on this project that is very challenging. I mean, we built an entire car from scratch — it’s very difficult. We have a very supportive environment,” said Jackson. “People are just generally welcoming.”
They are putting in a lot of long hours and Jackson’s goal is to produce a new car every two years.
Related story: 6 Minutes to Spare as Sunswift 7 Solar Car Sets Provisional World Record!
Solar car construction and racing at universities has been going on for decades. But having a commercially available car with solar on the roof is a more recent phenomenon. My 2011 Nissan LEAF, being the top trim level, has a tiny solar panel on the rear spoiler. It really doesn’t do much; it’s used to trickle-charge the 12V battery. Legend has it that when the Nissan LEAF was originally being designed, they ended up putting the tiny panel on to eliminate the deluge of inquiries from potential buyers asking why they couldn’t have a solar panel on the car. It essentially served that purpose.
In the past, other commercially available EVs have experimented with solar panels built into car roofs and sunroofs with limited success. Those include the Toyota Prius Plug-in and the Audi A8. Soon, Hyundai, Kia, and Fisker will join the solar soiree.
Through the years, battery and solar panel efficiency has improved a tremendous amount. So, we are at a time when a light and aerodynamic vehicle like the Aptera can gain a decent amount of range from sunlight alone. And, if your use case includes being parked outside for long stretches of time, that could mean getting enough range for daily driving on sun power alone.
While the students at the University of Kentucky can’t typically afford an EV to drive and are driving older cars (if driving at all), the work that they are doing is spreading awareness and has likely influenced the work at Aptera.
It takes a lot of money and in-kind donations from universities, private businesses, and interested individuals to make these programs a reality. If your next vehicle runs partially or fully on sun power as a much cleaner errand runner, I say it is money well spent.
Related story: The Aptera Gamma — CleanTechnica Video Walkthrough
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