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Interview: Ford Solar C-Max Energi Provides Relief from Pump Pain

Bill Roth | Monday January 6th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Ford Solar C-Max EnergiFord just launched a concept car called the C-MAX Solar Energi that is designed to recharge its batteries within 8 hours through the solar cells installed in the car’s roof. The car’s batteries, solar cells and Fresnel lens system are sized to allow the typical commuter to drive to and from work on free solar energy. If Ford is successful in commercializing this technology then the pump price pain of car ownership will be broken. It will also be a global technology breakthrough for reducing urban smog and greenhouse gas emissions tied to climate change.

Three Design Elements

The C-Max Solar Energi is the integration of solar cells, solar-concentrating Fresnel lens and smart software that allows the car to track the sun to optimize solar energy flowing to the car’s batteries. The foundational element in the car’s design is the installation of SunPower solar cells integrated into the vehicle’s roof. These solar cells deliver a higher solar capacity per square foot, can curve to the car’s roof contours and add only a few pounds of additional weight.

The second design element is a carport-like structure holding a Fresnel lens – a series of lenses that concentrate the sun’s rays – sending that solar energy onto the car’s solar cells when the vehicle is parked under the canopy. The third design step integrates the operation of the Fresnel lens canopy with the car through smart software that maintains solar energy focused upon the car’s solar cells as the sun travels through the sky. Working together these integrated design elements will, on-average, recharge the car’s batteries during an eight-hour day.

Exclusive interview

David McCreadie is Ford’s Manager of Electric Vehicle Infrastructure and Smart Grid. During my exclusive interview with McCreadie he surfaced the engineering promise and challenges facing the commercialization of the C-Max Solar Energi.

The key design challenge in the C-Max Solar Energi was to continuously focus the Fresnel lens upon the car’s rooftop solar panels during charging. The current design achieves this through software that autonomously moves the car in synch with the sun’s arc across the sky. McCreadie estimated that the vehicle would have to shift its location by close to six feet during an eight-hour day. This raises obvious safety issues. It raises obvious questions regarding how much space is required to house a moving car under a Fresnel lens canopy. But it is also a remarkable testament to Ford’s smart technologies to even test such an idea with a concept car. Like most technology concepts the field-testing seeks to surface more practical solutions than autonomously moving a car six feet during the day to track the sun.

Cost will also be a design challenge. At this concept-stage Ford is not even addressing the “how much” question. But the commercialization of roof rooftop solar systems might provide pricing insights. Today’s rooftop solar systems can be leased for zero down with guaranteed savings for the homeowner compared to electric bills. A similar enabling lease package for the C-Max Solar Energi and its Fresnel lens infrastructure could make this technology commercially viable.

Sea-changing potential

The C-Max Solar Energi offers the promise of a sea-changing solution to fossil fuel costs, energy independence and climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. California will certainly be an early adopter market. In 2014 California is launching building code revisions targeting a Zero Net Energy (ZNE) environmental footprint. Offering onsite solar recharging as an alterative to fossil fuels aligns with California’s goal of having all new residential construction be ZNE by 2020 and all new commercial construction by 2030.

In addition, California has launched a “Charging Ahead” goal that envisions a million electric cars on California’s road. Ford estimates that the C-Max Solar Energi can reduce the annual greenhouse gas emissions for a typical owner by four metric tons. A million Californians using electric cars that recharge their batteries from solar energy would be a huge advancement toward the State’s goals for reducing emissions and fuel costs. It would also address electric grid reliability questions tied to the potential of a million electric car commuters connecting to the grid to recharge at the same time and/or during critical peak time periods.

The C-Max Solar Energi could also be a meaningful solution for countries like China and India that are struggling with the environmental consequences tied to their record setting growth in car sales. Today China annually suffers a million premature deaths due to excessive air pollution. Mass application of solar powered cars would be a huge solution to issues of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and balance of trade impacts created from importing oil. The C-Max Solar Energi also offers a transportation and productivity solution for locations that have limited fossil fuel or grid infrastructure.

Game changing cleantech commercialization

The C-Max Solar Energi is an example of how the commericalization of cleantech is on the cusp of being a game changer for the U.S. economy and human health. Rooftop solar is now price competitive with grid supplied electricity sourced from fossil fuels. Biofuels are gaining market penetration in premium fuels like jet fuel. Smart technologies linking big data and 3-D printing has launched manufacturing 2.0 that holds the promise of on-shoring jobs, reducing emissions and delivering competitively priced products offering superior quality. And concept cars like the C-Max Solar Energi are pioneering breakthroughs that could cut America’s cord to pump price pain.

Bill Roth is an economist and the Founder of Earth 2017. He coaches business owners and leaders on proven best practices in pricing, marketing and operations that make money and create a positive difference. His book, The Secret Green Sauce, profiles business case studies of pioneering best practices that are proven to win customers and grow product revenues. Follow him on Twitter: @earth2017


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  • Dave Shires

    Loving this concept… But still, without the fresnel, your in trouble and fresnel lenses are wildly expensive, and can you count on having one at both ends of your journey?