I know a number of people who drive almost exclusively on solar power. They have an array of solar panels on their roof at home. Some of them just charge during the day, while others have home battery storage to charge the car at night. The end result? Saving money, and being as close to true zero emission driving as possible. Home charging can be challenging enough alone for renters, but the idea of solar driving appears nearly impossible. Or is it?
I decided to do some research and throw a little of my own experience on top to see what options exist for renters to drive on nothing but sunshine. Here’s what I found.
Vehicle Solar Panels
Admittedly, it was the Sion solar/electric car that inspired this article. By covering the vehicle with the highest-efficiency solar cells available, Sono Motors figures that a driver can get up to 19 miles of range from solar alone in Munich, Germany.
Looking at this map from the Department of Energy, I saw that the southwest US gets almost double the solar energy that Munich does, and much of the United States would still do better. I do have days where I drive more than 30-40 miles, but there are many days where that’s all I would need. Even if it only covered half of my driving most days, it would still be a big improvement over only plugging into the grid at home.
Unfortunately, the Sion isn’t going to be available in the United States any time soon. But what about my 2018 Nissan LEAF? I did find a video of one owner who had 240 watts of cells on the roof of his older LEAF.
He set his up to charge a deep cycle lead-acid battery, which in turn powered a pure sine wave inverter, which powered a 120v EVSE. It’s an interesting setup, but it can’t charge the vehicle while it drives and required a lot of “redneck engineering” that many folks probably wouldn’t want to do to their EV. Most importantly, it only provides about ¼ the power of the Sion’s cells daily. I’m going to keep looking into it, and I might even start adding cells to my LEAF, but I need it to be a lot more seamless. I’ll post more here once I have something worth doing figured out.
Overall, this is probably the least powerful option renters have, mostly because the surface area of a car is so limited. The Sion pushes this to the limits of current technology with 24% efficient cells. As cells become more efficient, we might see this become a more popular option.
The only real workaround I’ve seen is Route del Sol’s solar-powered camper van. They took a used International eStar, put new batteries in, and added a 6 kW solar array that folds out during stops. If you aren’t in a hurry, and have a large vehicle, something like this could work. For the rest of us, though, we are probably going to want to wait for better cells, or only do part of our driving on solar power.
Portable Solar Panels
Another option for renters is portable panels. By not making any permanent changes to a home or apartment, this might be something a landlord would allow.
For portable systems, the sky is pretty much the limit. You can find lower-price solar panels on Amazon, but they only put out a few hundred watts at most like the guy with the solar LEAF further up. You could buy a larger system or cobble one together out of multiple smaller systems. Depending on the property, space can be an issue, but it may be possible to put something together that can do a lot of charging. One pro-tip: use sand bags to hold panels down so you don’t have to drill into any surfaces. Ropes are also a plus if you are handy with knots.
If all you can fit on a porch or balcony is a couple hundred watts of power, consider downsizing some of your daily transport with an eBike. Most eBikes charge up on under 100 watts and take a few hours to get a few dozen miles of range. Portable panels can also be used to charge the eBike at your destination.
If your rental property has room in a driveway or parking lot, you might consider a solar array mounted on a trailer and either put storage on the trailer or charge the car during the day. It may sound a little “redneck” to do this, but the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport has a charging station that is exactly like this. It has a solar array, storage, and two Chargepoint networked plugs.
Another interesting option I’ve seen in the Smartflower solar array. It has a small footprint, but folds out like a flower and follows the sun through the day. It also can sense when winds are getting too high, and fold itself back up to protect itself until it calms down. What I’d really like to see is a vehicle-mount option for something like the Smartflower, but that doesn’t exist…yet.
Whichever way you choose to go solar or renewable, be sure to keep it safe. If you don’t know what you’re doing, ask an experienced person for help. Even a little 12V system could cause injury or worse if mishandled. Lead acid batteries can explode if not stored and cared for properly.
If you can’t put solar on your car, and you can’t use anything portable, you might consider talking with the landlord about permanent installation. Some landlords may allow this, while others will not. They might foot the cost in exchange for increased rent, or they might require you to cover all costs and pay to remove the system when you leave. Either way, it’s worth discussing this with your landlord.
The remaining options don’t give you the independence and control over your energy, but still make positive contributions when the above options aren’t viable.
You might look at community solar. You can buy solar power from your utility or through a third party that runs the solar farm. The solar power gets delivered to the grid and then offsets the power that you use at home, including for car charging. Where this arrangement is available, it’s possible to still get cost savings that come with solar and know you’re making a positive environmental impact. There are also similar options for other clean sources like hydroelectric or wind.
One final option would be to sign up for a renewal energy tariff with your local utility. This won’t work the same in all places, but where I live, you pay the power company a little more every month to get a guarantee that the local grid gets renewables added to at least offset your usage. This isn’t a good way to save money, but it does push your local utility or coop to install more renewables and eventually retire non-renewable sources.
Know of any other options I didn’t get to here? Be sure to tell us about them in the comments or where this article is shared on social media. The more options people are aware of, the better!
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