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Are Ford and SunPower About to Make the Grid Irrelevant for EV Charging?

A couple months ago, we asked if electric vehicle services could help an automaker like Ford disrupt the relationship between electric utilities and their customers.

The answer, according to Mike Tinskey, director of Ford’s global electrification division, was probably not. Although Ford is encroaching on traditional utility business by providing new residential energy management services around its C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, Tinskey sees the automaker as a “conduit” rather than a direct competitor to power companies.

Unless, of course, Ford bypasses the utility altogether. And that’s exactly what the company now plans to do.

Today, Ford announced its vision to build out new charging infrastructure for its plug-in hybrid vehicles based exclusively on off-grid solar. If rolled out as planned, the automaker says it could cut grid charging of its C-MAX hybrid by up to 75 percent.

“This gives you the ability to fuel the vehicle without having to plug into the grid,” said Ford’s Tinskey in an interview. “We’ve been calling it the first plug-in hybrid that doesn’t need to plug in.”

The system blends together concentrating solar photovoltaics and autonomous driving technology to create an off-grid charging service for Ford customers.

Ford’s new concept plug-in hybrid model, called the C-MAX Solar Energi, will host an array of SunPower’s X21 high-efficiency solar cells on the top. The cells on their own wouldn’t provide enough electricity to re-charge the car’s battery in a timely fashion, however. So Ford turned to researchers at Georgia Tech, who developed an acrylic fresnel lens integrated into a canopy structure that will concentrate the sun onto the cells.

Under Ford’s vision, a driver would park the car under the canopy at work or in a public space. Sensors along the car would engage autonomous driving, moving the vehicle beneath the canopy to track the sun. Tinskey said that a six-hour charge could provide 21 miles of solar-based driving. 

“The infrastructure is nothing more than fresnel lenses mounted in a canopy. There’s no motorized complexity. So we’re hopeful this can take off,” said Tinskey.

“Hopeful” is the key word here. The C-MAX Solar Energi is simply a concept model — which means it could take a while for the vehicle to hit commercial production. 

Getting into the vehicle charging sector is certainly not a sure bet either. Given the number of recent flops and rollout problems among companies trying to build electric vehicle charging networks, it may seem surprising that an automaker like Ford would enthusiastically embrace the charging market. But this model will be easier to implement, said Tinskey.

“There’s been a lot of complexity in grid-based EV charging,” said Tinskey. “The cost and logistics to get level-2 chargers installed can be tough. But this particular solution is free standing and requires no grid connectivity.”

Ford’s new C-MAX model featuring SunPower cells will be shown at next week’s consumer electronics show. The company will also display the new charging canopy and autonomous driving capabilities that help charge the car faster.

With 85,000 hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric sold in 2013, Ford is pursuing new technology partnerships that will encourage more customers to go electric. One year ago, it unveiled the MyEnergi Lifestyle software platform, which connects smart appliances, solar PV and information about electricity rates to help homeowners optimize when and how to charge their vehicle. That product is still in pilot phase as well.

Tinskey said that “technology convergence” is making it possible for Ford and other automakers to dream up entirely new service models for electric vehicles. This solar-powered hybrid is the latest example of the coming trend.

“We’re excited about that trend. The technologies are converging to make this a reality,” said Tinskey.

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Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jan 4, 2014 7:13 pm GMT

So the idea is, charge during the day and only drive at night?

Somehow I don’t think this one will fly. The reason people buy cars instead of taking the bus is utility: the bus doesn’t always go where you want when you want. If EVs are being charged during prime driving time, you lose much of the utility of the vehicle and there’s less reason to own one in the first place.

To make EVs attractive, they not only have to be reasonably affordable, they must also go when you want without having to wait for a charge. For most people, that means charging at night, when you’re asleep. So solar power and EVs are definitely not a match made in heaven. When EVs penetrate the market in large numbers, we will need reliable baseload nighttime power that is also fossil-free. That means hydro, where available, and nuclear, where not.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jan 4, 2014 7:23 pm GMT

The developing C-Max technology looks interesting.  Based on the illustration of the fresnel lenses parking structure and HEV’s autonomous movement, the parking structure appears to have a physical footprint of about 10 meters x 2.5 meters = 25 sq. meters or 256 sq.ft. (about twice the size of typical garage parking spaces).   Estimating the HEV’s average electric power consumption at 200 watt/mile, the advertised 21 mile solar power generation means the charging-parking structure and HEV solar panels generate about 5,250 watts over a 6 hour period (assuming a charging system efficiency of 80%).  These data yield a proposed C-Max energy generation design performance of 3.4 watts per sq.ft. or less than 30% of average conventional roof-top solar panel installations (12 watt/sq.ft.).  The C-Max design may look creative, but the overall efficiency and likely costs appear somewhat challenged. 

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jan 4, 2014 11:43 pm GMT

Have you taken even a cursory look at the technology in the patent application before dismissing it with a wave of your hand, Cliff? Do you think these particular Ford engineers haven’t thought of any of your obvious objections? After all, don’t their careers as engineers depend on designs that are not laughable?

Wasn’t Cliff Claven the name of a consistently wrong, know-it-all mailman on an 80’s sitcom?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jan 5, 2014 7:06 pm GMT

Let me ask you this. Have you read the post, and if you have, do you see no obvious significant problems with the idea?

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jan 5, 2014 7:34 pm GMT

I think autonomous vehicles, solar and battery tech are all advancing very quickly .  I think these technologies are pretty amazing and that any design problems can and will be addressed. While maybe not this particular design, I think solar charging parking lots are inevitable

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jan 5, 2014 7:54 pm GMT

I agree that solar parking lots are inevitable, but as you said, not with this design. The idea that Hundreds of cars will park underneath lenses and will roll forward to track with the sun (meaning youll require parking area for 2 cars to service one car) is a bad idea.

I think the author of this post was to hasty and in a hurry to hype Ford’s idea. If solar parking lots gain ground, the Parking lots will themselves likely provide power from Solar cells owned by the lot while drivers plug in.

Frankly, The headline…”Are Ford and SunPower About to Make the Grid Irrelevant for EV Charging?   ” is an embarrasing hype.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jan 5, 2014 8:02 pm GMT

I can agree with that, but i don’t believe renewable solutions are the only energy concepts that are embarassingly hyped. takes on Ford’s concept here

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 6, 2014 4:49 am GMT

Stephen, it was very capable engineers who designed a 5-watt solar panel for the Nissan Leaf SL. Assuming a 15% capacity factor, the panel will generate 6Wh/day.

  • One full day in the sun will provide enough energy to power the car’s radio for 16 minutes.
  • One full day in the sun would provide enough energy to move the car 83 feet.
  • To charge the entire traction battery pack, you’d have to leave the car sitting in the sun for just over 13 years.

Why bother with such an ineffectual, wasteful feature which will never repay the carbon debt incurred to make it in the first place?

Because there are enough well-meaning but ignorant car buyers who see a useless solar panel and let it influence their decision to buy. It’s all about selling cars – and Nissan marketers know very well the power these trivial gestures have over a gullible public. In Ford’s case, kick in the populist movement to overturn the utility generation model and you have a market ripe for suggestion – particulary when the idea involves the truly awful idea of moving a car during charging merely to avoid connection to the Dreaded Grid.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jan 6, 2014 8:53 am GMT

I don’t know what percentage of a vehicle’s total energy needs solar panels built directly into its frame could one day ultimately provide, but I do know that carbon neutral or even carbon negative fuels made from solar catalysts are quickly becoming feasible and are a much more elegant and versatile solution

I know that most people are not “well meaning, but ignorant” and that if you start from the premise that the highest percentage of the public is gullible, you probably won’t end up with the highest percentage of the market.

I know that the sale of energy is, currently, in total, more profitable than any other venture known to man. and as such inspires tremendous dishonesty and greed.

I know that the monopolization of energy sources continues to promote war and that future geopolitical power hinges on our future choice of energy sources.

I know that the sun has the capacity to power all of mankind’s current and future endeavors cleanly and that the sun’s tremendous power can not be cornered or made scarce.

A solar powered world is a most reasonable goal.

Thom Westergren's picture
Thom Westergren on Jan 6, 2014 9:30 pm GMT

These are not mere 5 watt panels. There are three full size panels from probably the most renowned manufacturer in the industry. If they’re output is similar to other panels of this size they’ll produce roughly 200 watts each. Plus, of course, there’s the lenses to concentrate the energy and get more. Nissan had an entirely different goal. No comparison can be made.

That being said, it is a nobel idea, but I predict collosal failure, not from a technological perspsective, but from several practical ones. Most people don’t park their cars at home during the day and most will not have the location needed to make it work. AND they’ll still need a way to plug-in for cloudy weather.

Thom Westergren's picture
Thom Westergren on Jan 6, 2014 9:27 pm GMT

Concentrated solar energy means concentrated exposure to sun and heat. The paint and moulding around the edge of the solar will be trashed in short order.

There is no way that there is sufficient market for this idea. Few car owners park at home during the day, not to mention the need for proper location of the carport.

Ford is up to something else with this idea. Most likely, it’s just a concept to draw attention to their other hybrid and electirc options—and away from the competition, like Tesla, Nissan, Mitsubishi, etc.

If they keep people talking and looking at their ideas, they win—even if they make themselves look stupid to those with a modicom of solar knowledge. @ford


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 7, 2014 4:11 pm GMT

Thom, my comment wasn’t intended as a strict power comparison of the two schemes, but of presenting a useless solar-based “solution” by an automaker to help sell cars. The goal is the same.

From an engineering point of view, it would be simple to create a strip of PV cells under the fresnel apparatus to efficiently capture energy, then transfer it to the car through the car’s charging port. Of course, that would require a cable. And since cables are the chains which bind us to our industrial overlords, the Power Utilities, they’ve substituted the mind-numbingly stupid and inefficient idea of moving the car.

Thom Westergren's picture
Thom Westergren on Jan 8, 2014 11:15 pm GMT

Very good point, Bob. I see your perspective more clearly now. And your idea of lenses suspended over solar sounds good, but I envision it equipped with wireless charging—a cable is not necessarily a necessity.

On the other hand, energizing the customer’s home through a partnership with an installer makes the most sense. But, as you point out, they aren’t interested in making sense, they are going for WOW factor.

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