Solar power has grown into a leading source of renewable energy in recent years. According to a 2016 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar is now the world’s fastest-growing form of renewable energy, with net generation increasing by an average of 8.3 percent every year. Besides the energy sector, however, solar is now making significant advances into the global transportation industry.
Not so long ago, electric car manufacturer Tesla announced its $2 billion acquisition of America’s largest residential solar installer SolarCity.
Ecotech Institute Campus President Chris Gorrie explains: “The merger was a significant event for both the transportation and the solar industries. The move will allow Tesla to expand its solar energy branch, namely, its residential solar roof project. And it will also allow the company to improve its car manufacturing capabilities by pairing its storage systems with solar, which can simplify vehicle charging and maximize the potential of the its Gigafactory.”
Another prominent sign of the growing influence of solar in the transportation industry comes from airports.
“For instance,” says Gorrie “The Denver International Airport (DEN) currently generates as much as 10 megawatts (mW) of electricity from its four photovoltaic solar arrays located on-site.”
According to DEN’s website, its solar panels can offset up to 11,465 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions each year. This is equivalent to the emissions produced by burning more than 12 million pounds of coal.
Gorrie continues: “Earlier in September, California’s Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) announced the completion of its on-site 826 kW solar program, capable of generating 1.5 million kWh of clean energy annually.”
The field of solar panels installed beside the runway at MRY is expected to save the airport $5.5 million in energy bills.
“According to Airport Cooperative Research Program, airports are some of the largest users of energy in the country,” notes Gorrie. “So, integrating photovoltaic solar systems has now become one of the most effective ways to reduce operating costs for airports, in addition to reducing emissions.”
But the use of solar energy has the potential to spread far beyond the traditional modes of transportation, such as cars, trains and planes.
“There are opportunities for more radical infrastructure implementation of solar,” Gorrie says. “Hyperloop rail system is one of such emerging innovations.”
Conceived by tech entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the Hyperloop technology is currently in development. However, a recent study (PDF) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that Hyperloop could be completely powered by solar energy. According to the study, this new transportation technology could be two to three times as energy efficient as air travel, and up to six times as efficient on short routes.
“This is a very exciting time for solar photovoltaics,” says Gorrie. “We see this technology being implemented in an increasingly broadening spectrum of applications. The two main sources for greenhouse gases today are transportation and buildings. And while solar panels are being widely used in buildings, it’s great to see photovoltaics now receiving wider implementation in the transportation sector as well.”