Why don’t electric cars have solar panels on them?

A waste of space? Maybe not

Solar panels on electric cars

Solar could cover a quarter of the world’s energy needs by 2050, and possibly your electric car’s.

With solar panels able to generate clean, off-grid energy, it makes no wonder homeowners and charging hubs are in love with them. But the same can’t be said for electric car manufacturers.

Are they missing a trick?

Isn’t it the dream for an electric to generate its own electricity?

Why most cars don’t have solar panels

Today’s electric cars don’t have solar panels because the surface area of a car’s body is not large enough for solar panels to capture a meaningful amount of energy.

Because of this, logic says that solar panels would never pay themselves back or generate more clean energy than was used to make them. This makes the endeavour both cost negative and carbon negative.

However, this is only a problem of technology.

Today’s solar panels are generally around 15-20% efficient, and even the most efficient panels (which cost a lot more) only reach around 45%. This means they convert very little of the light they receive into energy.

A small surface area + inefficiency equals a poor way to generate energy, so most car manufacturers are not interested right now.

However, there are companies innovating in this area by making whole body panels out of solar panels to provide meaningful energy generation.

Lightyear One solar electric car

Lightyear One

The Lightyear One is a solar electric car with a 450-mile range. It has five square metres of solar panels (the cells are encased in safety glass). Reservations cost €119,000 (around £100,000).

In July, Lightyear found a manufacturer to put the One into production. Finnish contract manufacturer Valmet Automotive will start building the vehicle this year. The goal is to build a higher-volume, less-expensive solar car in the future.

Never say never to solar panel roofs

The reason solar panels are inefficient is that the semiconductors that convert sunlight into electrical energy only capture a fraction of the light they get. This means a small surface area hampers energy production.

Related: Best chargers with solar integration

In the future, solar panels might get so efficient that they convert 80% to 90% of the sunlight that hits them into energy. This would help make the limited surface area of a car body less of a problem.

Interestingly, Hyundai offers a solar roof as an optional extra on the IONIQ 5 in some markets (non-UK models).

How much energy does it generate? The IONIQ 5’s solar roof generates around 0.5kW every 6 hours on a sunny day, so it’ll give you around 6 miles of extra range in 12 hours (at 3 miles per kWh). Not enough to make sense.

For now, there are easier ways for today’s electric cars to boost efficiency than with solar panels. For example, these save more energy than solar panels on a car can generate:

  • Low rolling resistance tyres
  • Weight savings
  • Aerodynamics
  • Refining electric motor efficiency

For now, solar-powered cars are still a dream until the Sono Sion and Lightyear One come along (both projects are interesting and could pave the way). In the future, we might be buzzing around in cars powered by the sun.

If you found this article interesting, did you know you can charge your electric car with solar panels? In fact, solar panels are the best way to generate off-grid energy for charging.

Alfred drives a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus but has his eye on a fully-electric pick-up truck. He'd love an electric Ford Ranger, which should be a real thing in a few years!