Solar-Powered Toyota Prius Project

Green Car Congress writes about a very cool project by Canadian engineer Steve Lapp who modified his 2001 Prius by installing solar panels on the roof. It is admitted that the car is still a rough prototype, but so far the fuel economy improvement are of 10%, a respectable figure; for reference, Honda completely redesigned the Honda Civic engine for the 2006 model and achieved a 6% increase in fuel economy (the comparison is not quite fair, but I just want to point out that it can take lots of engineering efforts to gain even a few percents). "Lapp’s modelling predicts a 10%–20% fuel efficiency improvement for the 270 watts of PV (to be bumped up to 360 watts with the additional of a fourth panel)".Here's a quote from Lapp's plan:

...the fact that [current Toyota hybrids] can run on electricity alone, with their gasoline engines off, offers the opportunity to provide them with more electricity and therefore drive further with the gasoline engine off.

Electricity can be provided from the electrical grid by charging an onboard battery, and depending on where that electricity comes from, it will have various emissions associated with it. [The plug-in concept.] However if it is provided from renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaic panels, then it is "green". This begs the question of why not put the PV panels directly on a hybrid car and generate electricity onboard while the car is parked outside, or even while driving. The general reaction of people to this idea is that there could not be enough energy striking the roof of a car to provide enough electricity to drive any meaningful distance.

This is where the incredible efficiency of the hybrid car must be taken into account. To drive a hybrid car about 1 km, takes about the same electricity as to light a 150 watt bulb for one hour! The point is not to drive the car using only solar power, but to effectively use solar power to improve gasoline fuel efficiency.

How much gasoline can this photovoltaic hybrid car save? Well let’s look at the energy available from the sun on the roof of the car. For June and July in Kingston Ontario, about 6 kWh of energy from the sun strikes each square meter of horizontal surface. If we install 2 square meters of photovoltaic panels on the car and we collect 10% of the energy from the sun as electricity (well within present PV efficiency), we can theoretically go about 8 km each day on just the sun’s energy. If we drive 24 km on a sunny day, that is enough to reduce our gasoline consumption by 33%. This would take the Prius from 5.0 l/100km [47 mpg] to 3.3 l/100km [71.2 mpg].

And a quote from the Green Car Congress article:

The 300 VDC output of the solar subsystem is attached to the switched side of the original Prius battery, so the PV battery cannot recharge the NiMH while the ignition is off. The PV system can inject a maximum of up to 2 amps continuously into the battery while the ignition is on. [...]

The decision not to charge the hybrid when the car is off was a pragmatic choice, given the financial and time constraints of his project. Among other issues, there would need to be a thorough analysis to determined the optimal PV-NiMH energy flow/charge relationship.::The Photovoltaic Hybrid Car Project , via the always excellent ::Green Car Congress

Best of TreeHugger