As the world makes concerted efforts to avoid a major climate catastrophe, electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers are in a race to produce cars that can run on renewable energy, thereby mitigating the damage done to Earth by transportation run on conventional fuel. Almost all major car manufacturers are investing billions of dollars on research, more efficient batteries and charging stations.
The world awaits the most optimal electric cars run on clean energy, while the climate change spectre looms large over a polluted earth. According to Global EV Outlook 2022, sales of EVs doubled in 2021 over 2020 to a new record of 6.6 million. Nearly 10 per cent of global car sales were electric in 2021, four times the market share in 2019.
This brought the total number of electric cars on roads to about 16.5 million, triple 2018’s total. Global sales of electric cars have kept rising, with two million sold in Q1-22, up 75 per cent from the same period in 2021. The European Parliament has taken a decision to ban sales of new vehicles with combustion engines, voting to make the production of diesel and petrol cars a thing of the past in the bloc, starting in 2035.
We can no longer talk of electric cars in future tense. What is slowing down the transition are high costs, not just of the car itself but, more significantly, of the charging infrastructure that runs into billions.
Solar cars revving up
With the increased interest in renewable energy systems, and of course, electric-powered vehicles, solar-powered cars have come to the fore. Many automobile companies, including some innovative startups, are making dramatic progress towards more efficient solar technologies.
In simple terms, solar cars are electric vehicles that use photovoltaic cells to convert energy from sunlight into electricity. These vehicles can store some solar energy in batteries to allow them to run smoothly at night or in the absence of direct sunlight.
According to estimates, the solar vehicle market could reach $689 billion by 2027. Automobile companies are already working on ways to capitalise with interim technology, such as solar roof panels for charging batteries and internal systems.
In this highly competitive segment, a few innovation-driven companies are making headlines. One of them is Lightyear, a Dutch startup that puts itself in the same league as EV leaders like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.
Lightyear’s very first car, the Lightyear 0, has been billed as the world’s first long-range production-ready solar electric vehicle. It has been designed to travel up to 70 km solely powered by the sun, through solar panels embedded in the roof and the bonnet of the aerodynamically designed car. The car can also be charged at home sockets.
The light-weight car with its ‘holistic design’ allows it to be driven for weeks, even months, without needing to plug into a socket to recharge. This is because its solar panels top up its electric battery when the car is in motion or parked outside. I had the privilege of seeing this revolutionary car during a visit to the Netherlands, where the Lightyear facility is located. The first units are expected to be delivered to customers in Europe before the end of the year.
Studying the unique capabilities of the Lightyear 0 takes us into the brave new world of solar electric cars and introduces us to the potential for the rest of the world. It is a concept that will suit the UAE brilliantly, as we have plenty of sun as well as discerning buyers who care for the planet and governments that have foresight to think ahead.
Embedded solar panels
Mercedes-Benz has already revealed plans to outfit an upcoming electric car with rooftop solar panels. Toyota offers limited-capacity solar panels as an add-on to its Prius hybrid.
Sharjah has been making bold attempts to emerge as the hub of academic research, innovation, technology and environment-friendly initiatives. The Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park) is a prime example of this forward-looking approach.
It wouldn’t come as a big surprise to that Lightyear has selected SRTI Park to open testing facilities and a sales office, the first such facility outside the Netherlands. SRTI Park and Lightyear will collaborate on a range of activities, including setting up testing facilities and sales and service partnerships across the region. The agreement seeks to boost university research exchange programs on solar-powered EVs, and work on policy initiatives to support governments in creating incentives for electric vehicles, including solar-extended EVs.
In SRTI Park’s role as a key technology incubator, the partnership will also enable fundraising for development and production of future Lightyear models and could pave the way for local manufacturing in Sharjah in the future.
COP28 on the horizon
It is a huge achievement for the emirate of Sharjah and the UAE. The UAE was the first country in the region to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement. Last year, the UAE became the first country in the MENA region to declare a net zero by 2050 strategic initiative. Early investment in diversifying the UAE’s energy mix has already established regional leadership in clean energy, from renewables to nuclear to hydrogen. The UAE is home to three of the world’s largest and low-cost solar plants.
The UAE is also set to host the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP28), the second country in the Middle East to host a COP session after Egypt. This event will complement the dozens of projects and initiatives, such as the Lightyear-SRTI Park collaboration, that are paving the way for the UAE to become a noteworthy sustainable destination.
Hussain Al Mahmoudi
The writer is CEO of Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park).