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Q&A: IDTechEx’s Peter Harrop on the growth and opportunities in solar vehicles

By Matthew Hall 26 Apr 2021 (Last Updated April 26th, 2021 02:40)

Market researcher IDTechEx recently released the second edition of its solar vehicles outlook, within 12 months of the first edition. We caught up with IDTechEx chair Dr Peter Harrop to find out what the recent advancements have been in the space, and who stands to benefit from growth in solar vehicles.

Q&A: IDTechEx’s Peter Harrop on the growth and opportunities in solar vehicles
“Solar is becoming more efficient, and lighter weight, so you can get this very thin single crystal silicon,” said Dr Peter Harrop. Credit: Daimler AG

Some of the biggest potential for suppliers of renewable energy comes from the uptake of electric vehicles; as nations commit to banning petrol and diesel vehicles there are huge opportunities for those involved in the renewable sectors to get a foothold in electric vehicle supply chains.

While the hype has largely centred around battery electric, infrastructure requirements could limit the dominance of batteries to locations with solid access to charging points – potentially cutting off a lot of more rural, remote drivers, as well as entire markets of sea and air vehicles. Could solar power be the solution?

Matthew Hall (MH): This is the second edition of IDTechEx’s report on solar vehicles in 12 months – what have the recent advancements been that warranted revising your report?

Dr Peter Harrop (PH): There’s a realisation that this is more important than it seems. Solar is becoming more efficient, and lighter weight, so you can get this very thin single crystal silicon, that is cheap enough and efficient enough to be on the sides of things. So your luxury seagoing yachts, you can buy ones where all the sides are covered with solar, and it’s efficient, it pays back and it works.

The same thing with the [German start-up Sono Motors’] Sion car – they use solar on the sides, not just the top, and get much more electricity. So there’s a general picture forming here, but the second point is that it’s not just a case of saying: “Isn’t that nice, a bit more electricity,” which sometimes isn’t a full business proposition. 

It’s been done on a lot of aircraft wings and light aircraft, but most customers want the lower price, not the extra 30 minutes in the air. No, the added benefit is it’s a get you home feature.

If you land your solar aircraft in a field and you’re horrified – there’s no charging station or it’s not working when you get there – then you just wait and talk to a mountain goat for a couple of hours and get back on your journey.

MH: When it comes to electric vehicles, more of the attention is on batteries, with some more heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers exploring hydrogen as a fuel. Where can solar vehicles establish a foothold?

PH: At some stage, there will be a reversal of the move to cities because the cities are all going to go pop with everyone moving to them. The United Nations, World Health Organisation, other data all variously says it might even be as much as 80% of the world population lives in cities by 2050. 

And when you can get 6G communications and general interest in remote places like Scotland, there’s very good reason to live and work there.

Now, imagine you live on the Isle of Mull or somewhere in a fabulous house – it could be that we have with solar vehicles the modern version of the Singer sewing machine. 

The Singer sewing machine in the olden days was passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, it almost never went wrong and was any colour as long as it was black. And with little cars for these remote regions like Mull at the moment, they can’t easily get petrol because it’s expensive. That’s one of the reasons you aren’t living on Mull.

But if you had a car – any colour as long as it’s black because efficient solar is black – that went from mother to daughter to granddaughter and cost effectively nothing because you never have to plug in, you begin to open up those remote regions and begin reversing this move to cities. So it all forms part of a big picture.

MH: So in terms of the wider solar industry, who stands to benefit from this growth in solar vehicles as a viable proposition?

PH: Well first of all, single crystal silicon is dominated by the Chinese. The thin, particularly efficient single crystal silicon was made by SunPower in America, but they left the business and are just installers now. So the field is somewhat open.

An incremental thing that is almost a no brainer is new perovskites as they become longer life. Oxford PV in the UK is in a good place with this, as well as lots of competitors. But they’re in the business of putting perovskite over your regular single crystal silicon and that can go perfectly well on a car or a truck.

There are lots of projects across the world now making huge trucks that have solar across both sides, the back, the bonnet, and the roof. It really interests truckers because they’re running on tiny profit margins.

The outriders are people who do copper indium gallium selenide, which is claimed at the moment to be the lightest weight for a given power. Because instead of Sono motors making the car itself out of moulded polycarbonate sandwiched with single crystal silicon, you just have film that you put across. They claim it’s the lightest weight. But there’s a problem there with the cost of indium in copper indium gallium selenide. And the price hasn’t significantly come down for about five years.