'Fuel falls from the sky': The solar revolution coming down the road

"The fuel is literally falling from the sky," he said, adding that Toyota's own surveys suggest 70 per cent of daily passenger car use could be covered by self-charging cars. "We're on the cusp here."

Vehicle-integrated solar PV cars, as this one from UNSW, have been tested for years, including during the annual World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide.

Vehicle-integrated solar PV cars, as this one from UNSW, have been tested for years, including during the annual World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide.Credit:Scott Barbour

Professor Ekins-Daukes said covering a roof and bonnet with solar cells can supply 20 kilometres of range a day, while layering the sides of a car with panels can add another third. Improving the drive efficiency of electric cars would extend the range further, with Priuses able to travel 17 kilometres on a single kilowatt while those driving from Darwin to Adelaide have been able to achieve twice that. The prospects - and pitfalls - for vehicle-integrated solar PV will be the subject of a seminar on Tuesday supported by UNSW's Digital Grid Futures Institute and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Loading Australia lags most developed nations in the take-up of electric cars, although data out last week showing a tripling in annual sales - albeit to just 6718 in 2019 - suggests the long-anticipated demand surge is beginning. The appeal of self-charging or solar powered vehicles will add to the allure of electronic vehicles, which includes avoidance of lines and fluctuating fuel prices at service stations.

A raft of new models entering the market should also bring prices down, with analysts expecting price parity with combustion-engined cars to be reached by the mid-2020s if not sooner. Should self-charging vehicles enter the mass market, another potential hurdle for the electrification of transport will diminish with the reduced need for charging stations, Professor Ekins-Daukes said. Loading

Extra strain from EVs on a power grid already struggling to meet demand during heatwaves could also be cut. Research to be presented at this week's talk by UNSW's Taha Rashidi also indicates consumers would be willing to pay more for solar panels to help power their cars. He found owners would shell out an extra £2000 for 30 kilometres of additional driving range per day from solar panels, and even more than £7000 if the solar panels came in matching colours with the vehicle.

Along with cars, self-charging buses and trucks will be obvious applications of the embedded PV, particularly if city transport authorities take the lead and set standards, Professor Ekins-Daukes said.

However, the advancing solar technology means "pretty much anywhere you'd like to extract energy" will be possible, not least buildings where integrated PV are increasingly commonplace, he said.

Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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