Ford Readies C-Max Solar Energi Concept For 2014 CES: But How Practical Is it Really?

Solar panels and electric cars are a marriage made in heaven: not only do solar panels allow you to drive your plug-in car on the electricity you generate from the power of the sun, but owning an electric car can halve the amount of time it takes your solar panel investment to pay off.

Ford's C-Max Solar Energi can charge up in a day from just solar panels on its roof -- provided you use a Fresnel car port too...

Ford’s C-Max Solar Energi can charge up in a day from just solar panels on its roof — provided you use a Fresnel car port too…

So when Ford announced yesterday that it would unveil a solar plug-in hybrid concept car at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we had to sit up and take notice.

Popular with gadget geeks worldwide and held every January in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show starts the year with a bang, highlighting the very best in consumer gadgetry, computer technology and more recently, automotive tech. For Ford, attending the annual CES show is as important — if not more important — than attending the various auto shows which traditionally take place at the start of the year. The automaker has even used CES as a place to launch new vehicle technology — like its Ford Sync AppLink — and production cars — like its Focus Electric.

In its official press release announcing the presence of its C-Max Solar Energi Concept at CES 2014, Ford says the vehicle — based on a production C-Max Energi Plug-in hybrid but with a roof full of Solar panels — is a “first-of-its-kind sun-powered vehicle with the potential to deliver the best of a plug-in hybrid without depending on the electric grid for fuel.”

On paper, the Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept features around 1.5 meters of photovoltaic panels on its roof, capable of around producing around 300 watts of peak power. Alone, Ford admits, this panel wouldn’t generate enough electricity to make much impact on recharging the C-Max Energi’s 8 kilowatts of usable lithium-ion battery capacity. In fact, some simple back-of-the-napkin maths suggests that at 300Wh, it would take one hour and eight minutes to add just one mile of range.

That’s hardly practical.

The idea is sound, but how practical is it really?

The idea is sound, but how practical is it really?

But, says Ford, the C-Max Solar Energi’s killer app lies in the use of a 4.72 meter (15.58 feet) high carport, fitted with a 22.79 square meter (245 square feet) acrylic roof made up of a series of Fresnel lenses, which act like a series of magnifying lenses, improving the amount of energy the solar panels on the roof of the C-Max Solar Energi can generate.

To ensure the very maximum solar power is achieved, Ford’s concept vehicle works in concert with the the car port, slowly moving itself throughout the day as the sun tracks across the sky to ensure it is always getting the maximum solar power from the sun.  Then, and only then, can it charge its on-board battery pack from empty to full from a single days’ worth of sunshine.

Ford says its solution — developed in concert with SunPower and the Georgia Institute of Technology — offers a really low-cost way to ensure that it’s possible to charge an electric car from just the sunlight alone and could potentially revolutionise the way electric cars are charged.

“This solution, when you couple the infrastructure with the solar on the vehicle, essentially isn’t reliant on the grid any more,” said Mike Kinskey, director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford Motor Company.  “So if you’re in an area which doesn’t have electricity provided or a very unreliable source of electricity, this concept will still work.”

We’re no solar experts, so we reached out to one for their opinion. Thomas Newby of ThePhoenixWorks in Leeds, UK, is no stranger to solar panels or electric car charging infrastructure, as his company specialises in both.

“It’s great to see solar photovoltaics (PV) being integrated into a vehicle with a view to contributing towards range and not just reducing auxiliary load (A.C. etc.).  In addition, the use of a concentrating canopy is a proven way of increasing the power harvest from a relatively small PV panel as constrained by the available roof area on the vehicle,” he said to us in an email earlier today. “I do wonder though just how cost effective the concentrating canopy actually is and whether the “infrastructure cost” would be better invested on a conventional roof/canopy mounted solar array.  Clearly, since the canopy is fixed, when the vehicle is not present a lens would serve no purpose, whereas a roof mounted array would continue to contribute to the demand of the home or surrounding grid.  Also it should be considered, especially in warmer climates, that the lens will also concentrate the sun’s heat making for an especially hot parked vehicle.  Therefore part of the increased benefit of the power will be lost running climate control systems to cool the vehicle.”

But Newby said there is some benefit to the idea, although that technology would better be suited on the roof of owners’ homes rather than on the roves of their cars.

“It’s common sense that all electric vehicles should have integrated solar cells; though definitely a step in the right direction, I would be hesitant about the practicalities and cost effectiveness of the concentrating canopy.  I would suggest the investment be better place on the installation of a larger, more reliable, roof mounted solar array.  The largest single barrier to wider adoption of PV is the capital installation costs.”

Granted, Ford’s system is certainly better than previous solar-powered cars we’ve seen demonstrated, and manages to collect far more power than anything we’ve seen thus far.  But given the fact that you’d have to park in a space fitted with a solar-conentrating canopy to make full use of the C-Max Solar Energi’s solar panels, we can’t help but think if this solution is entirely practical yet.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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