Ford Develops Solar-Powered Car for Everyday Use

Ford Motor Co./AOLThe Ford C-MAX Solar Energi Concept.
By Philip LeBeau

Ford has developed a concept model that runs primarily on solar power, which could bring the world one step closer to having a vehicle for everyday driving that is not dependent on traditional energy sources.

The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is a collaboration between Ford (F), SunPower Corp. and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The concept car is expected to be unveiled next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Like all concept models, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept may never be built or sold to the public. However, many of the features and technologies we see in current vehicles were once shown for the first time in concept models years ago.

Harnessing the Sun's Power

Ford says the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept would be powered by energy it collects using a special concentrator that acts like a magnifying glass.

The concentrator would take energy %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%from sun light and direct intense rays to panels on the vehicle's roof.

In theory, the C-MAX Solar Energi could fully recharge itself without the vehicle having to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. Ford believes sunshine could power up to 75 percent of all trips made in a solar hybrid vehicle, though the automaker does not give a distance for those trips.

Solar-Powered Cars Not New

Solar-powered cars have been developed and driven around the world for years, but almost exclusively in contests or research programs designed to show how far cars could travel without gas. In most cases, the cars have been small capsules designed to hold only a driver.

The challenge has long been finding a way to harness enough solar energy to power a vehicle that could be used every day and carry more than just the driver.

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Ford Develops Solar-Powered Car for Everyday Use

Electricity generated by running water through a dam's turbines costs about 9 cents a kwh generated. That's less than half the cost of electricity generated from "ordinary" solar panels. More than three times less than solar thermal power. And hydropower may be even cheaper than what the EIA says it is.

The Hoover Dam, for example, is said to wholesale the electricity it generates for as little as 1.6 cents a kwh -- about a penny-and-a-half.

Say what you will about the downsides of wind power -- that windmills kill birds and bats, that they allegedly induce headaches in their neighbors -- one thing's for sure: Wind power is a whole lot cheaper than solar.

EIA estimates say that amortized over their lifetime, windmills generate electricity for a cost of just 10 cents a kwh on average -- on par with hydro, and far cheaper than solar.

Across the ocean, the European Wind Energy Association claims that some of its member projects are generating electricity at a cost of as little as 5 cents a kwh.

There's also geothermal energy -- which uses the differential between near-constant temperatures below-ground and temperatures up here to create energy.

Because geothermal energy equipment is of necessity buried, it costs a bit more to maintain it. But total costs tend to average around 10 cents a kwh -- similar to wind, and not much more than hydro. But again, a heck of a lot cheaper than solar. Indeed, at the Geysers power plant in California, geothermal energy is sold for as little as 3 cents a kwh.

Seeing as the nuclear power plants been around since the 1950s, you may not think of nuclear power as being particularly "alternative." But it doesn't produce greenhouse gases, and it does produce electricity.

And at just 11 cents a kwh to pay for electrons generated by the latest generation of nuclear reactors, it's definitely in the hunt to underprice solar. In France, where they do nuclear power at scale, utility company Electricite de France sells nuclear-generated electricity for about 5 cents a kwh.

Perhaps the most "alternative" of energies -- in the sense that it's so counterintuitive that you'd never think of it as alternative -- is coal. More specifically, coal burned in high-tech facilities that scrub out the pollutants, known by the seeming oxymoron "clean coal."

According to the EIA, if you take all the cost of creating a real clean coal industry with the latest scrubbing equipment factored in, then add the cost of developing technology to sequester carbon emissions and inject them deep underground so they can't leak back out, plus the cost of the coal itself ... you're still likely to come up with an average cost that's about 59 percent that of solar -- 13 cents a kwh.

So solar power is more expensive than all these other forms of alternative energy. But here's the worst part: Solar enthusiasts argue that as their industry gains scale, and the cost of producing solar panels falls, solar will become more cost-competitive with other forms of energy -- and that's simply not true.

Solar panel costs fell 53 percent in 2012. But the module cost makes up only about 33 percent of the total cost of building, operating, and maintaining a solar plant.

Panel mountings, solar power inverters, transmission cables, and more mundane costs such as paying the construction workers and buying or leasing land -- these all cost money too, and aren't subject to cheapening through scale.

Result: Falling module prices don't necessarily make solar plants cheaper to operate.

Long story short: You can have your solar power if you want it. But do expect to pay through the nose for it -- because the EIA's numbers don't lie, and solar power doesn't come cheap.

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