DIY Solar LEAF Project Shows The Untapped Potential Of Solar EVs

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After my recent article about solar electric vehicles (EVs), I came across something I didn’t expect to see so fast. Since the prices of both used EVs and solar panels have fallen so much, the price is now where DIY tinkerers are willing to break out their Dremel tools and make a go of it themselves.

Sam Elliott, a resident of sunny Texas, ignored the naysayers and decided to see what he could accomplish. He bought a $3,000 2011 Nissan LEAF, and as you’d expect for that price, the battery was already heavily degraded. He then spent another $2,400 on solar panels, batteries, a charge controller, an inverter, and various mounting bits. While the car’s panels only generate about 200 watts of electricity during the day, he does get about 10 miles of charge per day while the car sits in the parking lot at work. That might not seem like much, but it does give him enough charge to make the difference between being able to get home or having to go somewhere and charge.

DIY solar Nissan LEAF
Photo provided by Sam Elliott.

Unfortunately, he got a lot of flack for it when he originally posted it in a Facebook group. Yes, the solar charging system is relatively weak, uses less than ideal batteries, and isn’t mounted to the vehicle in the best possible way. He admits as much in his video. On the other hand, though, he found a way to reduce his reliance on the grid and make the car fit his needs despite the heavy range loss it has suffered. That’s nothing to make fun of.

When I asked him about future plans, he told me this little experiment is just the beginning. “PLEASE do not interpret this as the final stage of this project,” he said.  “This is just the earliest functioning model of the system.”

He has lots of plans for improvement on this proof of concept. The system currently uses heavy 12V AGM batteries to store the collected solar energy, and they weigh in at over 200 pounds. He plans to replace those with smaller and lighter lithium-ion cells, better integrate solar cells to the car for aerodynamics, and add more cells. He’s aiming for a goal of adding 20–25 miles per day. Once he feels the system is ready for other people to want to use, he hopes to start a small business converting older degraded LEAFs to run on solar power.

solar powered Nissan LEAF
Photo provided by Sam Elliott.

For those still skeptical, I have run the numbers on this. His current experimental setup uses relatively cheap cells, probably in the ballpark of 17% efficiency. That doesn’t matter for putting panels on the roof of a house, because there’s plenty of room for more panels. With 24% cells (the best currently available for order), he could easily achieve his goal if he covered a good chunk of the car’s roof, hood, and sides with cells. With that much coverage with the best cells, Sono Motors gets around 20 miles/day of charging with its Sion solar-electric car, and that’s in Germany. In sunny Texas, assuming good weather, achieving 20–25 miles of range most days is quite feasible.

Keep in mind that Tesla started as a project to mass produce (sort of) a car like the AC Propulsion tzero electric car, which was based on a kit car. Big things can start in people’s garages and driveways, and we’d be fools to assume that there are no more advances for individual tinkerers to make.

As I pointed out in another article, solar technology continues to advance. 34% efficient cells are already being used by Toyota’s test vehicle. As solar technology improves, the range added each day will increase for solar vehicles, at lower cost. I hope we see more tinkerers prove the usefulness of this emerging technology.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1953 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba