Solar will play a key role in the electrification of the transport sector

This article is the second entry in SolarPower Europe’s 10-part blog series on ‘What’s Hot in Solar’.

“Electrification of the transport sector will rely heavily on solar,” writes Naomi Chevillard, Policy Advisor at SolarPower Europe

With more than 5 million electric vehicles on roads worldwide in 2019 – and Norway as the leader in this field, seeing fully electric cars outselling fossil-fuel based cars for the first time ever in March 2019 – the electrification of transport has now reached a development stage that clearly shows it is a fast, easy, and cost-efficient solution to decarbonising transport and solving air pollution issues in cities. It is now also beginning to quickly transform the automotive sector – and at the same time, it is opening up exciting opportunities for solar.

Using solar as a fuel
Due to the scalability of low-cost solar and its matching generation curve with the common usage pattern of cars, the technology is the perfect fuel for electric mobility – and can be applied through a vast variety of models. Solar and other renewable power supply offers – through Guarantees of Origin (GOs) or other indirect ways – have been developed for private consumers or charging station operators. Off-site solar PPAs are also being used increasingly worldwide to cover the power needs of electric transport, in particular, subways, trams or trains. Usually publicly owned entities, they are committed to using clean energy while being very sensitive to electricity prices at the same time – a perfect business case for solar. Indian Railways, for example, targets to install 1 GW of solar and 200 MW of wind by 2020.

Solar can also be installed on-site to supply electricity directly to charging stations, be they publicly available or in buildings. Solar installations can be also coupled with batteries to maximise their output. On-site solar charging is particularly interesting for daytime charging patterns in office buildings, commercial buildings or park and ride stations, as the solar generation curve fits well with users’ needs, so it can be directly absorbed by the electric vehicles. This enables electricity savings for the owner of the charging stations and prevents undersizing of solar systems; moreover, it also avoids heavy usage of the grid, avoiding expensive grid connection upgrades and associated costs. On-site solar mobility solutions also provide consumers with economic benefits by pooling installation and maintenance costs.

Smart solar mobility
Smart charging is the hot topic in electric mobility, and it is also a central enabler of solar mobility. While smart charging is pivotal to enable grid integration of EVs, it offers vast potential for local and ultra-fast flexibility solutions that also support a very high density of grid integrated distributed solar capacity: many pilot projects are currently testing the ability of aggregated electric vehicles’ batteries to avoid grid constraints. The development of bidirectional charging – making EV batteries capable of being discharged to offer power on the grid – and ‘Vehicle-to-Home, Building or Grid’ concepts will turn EVs into mobile batteries that are able to adapt the charging process to the solar generation curve and optimise self-consumption rates locally.

Solar vehicles and solar infrastructure
The idea of having true solar vehicles with car-integrated PV panels has been looked into for a long time, but in the past, small PV sun-roofs have only been offered optionally by very few companies to power. The year 2019 could be the start of a new era in this perspective as two European start-ups – Sono Motors and Lightyear – have recently launched direct solar-powered cars. Alongside cars, solar is also considered for integration with heavier vehicles, such as buses or trucks’ ancillary services, and trains and boats in the urban public transportation or tourism sectors. In this context, solar boats are probably the most advanced segment, with a number of solar electric boats being used for emission-free and clean transport. Such solutions make sense for other reasons: not only do they increase the autonomy of the vehicle and decrease the dependence on larger and more expensive batteries, but they also increase the lifetime of batteries. Last but not least, solar mobility is also about solar infrastructure. Transport infrastructure offers uncounted opportunities for utilising solar, which will simplify the transition to electric mobility, including solar carports, noise barriers and railways tunnels, among others.

What’s next?
Solar offers a wide range of means to enable the electrification of transport. This includes cost savings for electric mobility and providing smart solutions for the grid integration of electric vehicles. Most importantly, versatile, low-cost distributed and central solar power systems are the key to the full and true decarbonisation of the transport sector.
It is crucial that the solar industry is now ready to propose solutions to the automotive sector. That is why SolarPower Europe has launched a Solar Mobility Task Force to put the solar industry at the front of this mobility revolution. The Task Force will map and communicate solar mobility business models. It will also engage with the automotive industry and consumers to promote solar mobility solutions, and with policymakers to ensure public support and removal of barriers.

For further trends in solar, download the Global Market Outlook for Solar Power 2019-2023

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