We live in a fast moving world. Fast both in development and motion. And traditionally we have powered all this with fossil fuels. We have long known that this energy supply will come to a natural end and now global warming and climate changes have accelerated to a point where we must act much more quickly to avoid further, costly environmental damage.
A sea change in finding alternative solutions for this has been the rapid recent development of electric power. Although some of this is generated by traditional fossil fuel sources a growing amount is being powered by cleaner and greener options such as wind, wave and solar power.
For transportation to embrace this power source there is a reliance on batteries, from early developments in heavy lead acid technology, through modern Lithium Ion versions which provide greater storage and even new ideas still on drawing boards and in the test tubes of many industrial chemical institutions.
Presently getting the electric power to the transport medium is a bit of a faff. High power electrical charging networks have only recently been planned and built also recharging batteries takes either massive amounts of time or massive amounts of power along with super cooled refrigeration mechanics. This is because fast charging generates huge amounts of heat as a by-product which can seriously damage or impair the equipment of the charging process.
For this reason a good compromise is solar powered battery recharge. Often readily available this is generally a fairly low powered constant supply, providing the daylight is present.
However, providing sufficient electric output for a high powered transport device such as a car is currently almost impossible to achieve other than for extremely lightweight prototype concepts. This is why no attempt is made to cover the roofs or panels of fully electric vehicles with solar panels and why all these vehicles are creeping quietly around the country looking for a fixed high amp electric charge point which they can sidle up to.
And providing sufficient panels for more energy intensive vehicles such as trucks, lorries, boats or even massive ships is even less likely.
Unless you are an ideas man like me and can see a way to beat this problem. And I present here a number of innovative concepts that may assist.
Solar Powered Cars
Let’s start with cars.
A couple of extremely light weight, prototype, hyper mileage, single seat, pram wheeled, ultra low drag vehicles with a streamlined plastic covering have been produced. These concepts were built to prove solar power concepts or challenge for self invented high mileage travel records, usually carried out in perfect solar producing conditions.
However, as discussed above our standard, fully equipped five seater electric cars need too much power storage and are used far too often in too many differing conditions to benefit from a charge source via just a few square metres of solar panel on their roof, even if you did add in the bonnet and side doors. There is just no more space to mount the panels.
This is why they are charged from a static point, either a mains public charger, from a parked charging space at home or something similar at a destination. This system works fine, providing the owner remembers to plug the car in to the mains and isn’t going on an extended journey. If such an undertaking is attempted a time consuming electrical fuel stop or two would be needed to be factored in.
So, the problem is the square meterage available of solar panels. So why not just tow a solar panel array? The increased surface area may just keep a car going for the number of miles needed for a longer trip. Imagine a trailer being towed behind the car, stretching back as far as an articulated lorry, quietly sucking up solar rays and sending the charge back into the cars battery via an attached coiled wire.
This is obviously all well and good on main, open, multiple lane roads and shouldn’t be too much of an issue but that’s not the only place cars need to go. On smaller, twistier, single carriageway roads, local suburban areas and cities a long trailer may be unruly and difficult to handle by the average driver so further innovation is required.
In these instances it is clear that the trailed array of panels needs to be shortened. So why not have an unfurling array? A twin axle trolley which automatically stretches out and also retracts to suit the road conditions.
The arrays will either have to be flexible enough to retract into a large roll or perhaps be designed to stack over and under each other in order to suit the trailer wheelbase length.
Maybe the ultimate version of this system would be a roll out trailer actually incorporated into the boot or within the rear bumper area of the car, which automatically deploys, dropping out and extending dependant on road suitability. Neat and tucked away for parking in congested cities and adjustable enough to suck up some sunshine dependant on the situation. With the advantage that the most effect will occur on longer runs on main roads, which is the weak point of electric propulsion systems.
Is it possible that this idea is so innovative and indeed needed that current, existing cars may be modified to remove the oily, noisy fossil fuel sucking engine with an electric powered transmission system and fitted out with an inboard, deployable towed power station?
Another associated thought may be that a future roadside recovery vehicle would be equipped with a trailer load of deployable, pre-charged, arrays ready to hitch to cars that have inadvertently run out of sun juice and are stranded on the edge of the carriageways? ‘Eh, eh’, I hear you mutter.
But enough of cars for now, what about other means of vehicular transport?
Vans, Trucks and Lorries
A similar system could be adopted for vans and trucks. But with these larger vehicles there is additional unused roof space for fixed panels and more space for incorporating a slide out additional array. Already many vans and lorries incorporate rear mounted equipment such as fold out load lifting platforms and even especially designed slimline forklift trucks.
For larger lorries already incorporating articulated designs an additional fixed or roll out trailer would be too unwieldy however their roof space is even more generous in the first place so should be utilised.
And in the case of the many articulated lorries which are just independent truck and trailer models with the cab owner hitching up the trailers of others the two parties would need to work to a commonly agreed system to ensure compatibility. Which makes me think that maybe the universal container design needs remodelling to incorporate solar arrays? And to avoid having to bolt on ill fitting solar panels to the corrugated roofs why not ‘paint’ a solar panel direct onto the corrugations? Surely this must be possible using laser etching?
But what if we consider other means of transportation?
The idea of roof mounted solar panels on trains is not required on much of the already electrified network. However the rail network system certainly lends itself to miles of fixed solar panel arrays alongside or between the rails for use of the rail network or to feed other non-rail infrastructure, homes and businesses nearby.
Notwithstanding the above, much of the network is not yet electrified and to convert it may be very expensive and require a lot of disruptive construction often in remote and environmentally sensitive areas. In these cases adopting roof panel mounted arrays on the long trains could be a good option and the towing of multiple, long, linked additional arrays is certainly a feasible thought.
And why isn’t wind power harnessed as the trains pass by? If you are unfortunate enough to be close to a passing high speed train you would feel the rush of wind created. Put up vertical fans near to the edge of the train which would spin up when a train passes and convert this mechanical energy back into electrical energy to help power the network points, lights and other infrastructure.
Canals have some similarity to the rail networks. Some of the bends may be a little tighter but it is still essentially a system that suits elongated design. And much like the rail system many miles of it are very open to daylight.
Already many canal boats, usually those that house live aboard residents, take advantage of a few solar panels along with the necessary electronic systems and batteries to power their onboard electrical needs. However, their roofs are often too congested with guy ropes, poles, brightly decorated watering cans and other useless ephemera to be fully equipped with major arrays.
This is because few canal craft rely on full electric propulsion. Most instead rely on fossil fuel powered engines. But if one considers that these engines are usually very low powered they could simply be replaced with a similar power output electric system.
It is doubtful that with current technology that a single boat, even one that extends a full 72 feet in length, would be able to site enough panels on its own roof, even if we utilise my earlier idea of spray painted arrays. So instead, why not tow an additional hull packed with a full set of solar arrays?
I would add a couple of other extras onto this big fuel cell to make the system more easily manageable down the cut. I would add a small seating area at the rear and a deployable electric outboard type motor, powered from the array, to make the craft individually controllable when needed. This would be required when the towed power source is detached from the main boat in order to pass through the standard locks on the canal system.
Finally why not incorporate onboard the hull array a mechanical or electrically automated pivoting system to steer the individual array panels towards any light source to increase efficiency of the system?
The ideas are just flowing out now so let’s scale this up.
River Boats and Ocean Yachts
Already there are fully electric powered catamarans on the market taking full advantage of their generous roof and deck spaces being covered with solar panels which feed battery systems and electric propulsion. At present their power is limited compared to other more powerful, faster boats and yachts but they can apparently sail continuously in the right conditions at a modest cruising speed.
The trouble with non catamaran design is the lack of roof and deck space. Plus many yachts are designed with open flybridge cockpits and many, many more are already built already incorporating big, heavy, fuel sucking engines. So I need to find a solution for these craft as well.
The natural energy source can be the same as the model suggested for the canal boats. Towed solar panel arrays, powering an onboard battery storage, electric propulsion motor system.
Yes, I can hear you already picking up on a couple of key points. Calm down I have already thought of these and have them covered.
Firstly, yes some modifications have to be made to the original watercraft. The current diesel or petrol engines will need replacing with electric units. But these will be much more compact and whilst being fitted likely to incorporate updated innovation such as steerable pod propulsion to increase low speed manoeuvring around the harbours and marinas.
The balance of the boat design caused by the reduction in engine weight from big heavy fossil fuel engines and gearboxes with huge fuel storage tanks to more compact electrical motors can be offset by judicious positioning of the necessary battery and charging equipment.
Alternatively just build new boats with design incorporated, electric motors and battery storage systems.
But, you exclaim, what about having to tow a massive solar panel array craft behind us whilst trying to pose around the Mediterranean beaches and tearing about in pointless but addictive high speed turns? My answer is don’t. The power source doesn’t have to go everywhere with you. Just tow it to a convenient bit of empty sea, anchor it from tidal movements, disconnect and go off to have some fun whilst it sucks up some sun, only to return at the end of play to recharge from your own self sufficient ‘fuel’ station.
And if you wish to harness even more power why not incorporate some wave energy technology into your floating power station as well? I’ll explain how when we really scale this up.
Ocean Going Ships
You may think that this article has developed from my ideas on road vehicles, adapting some of these basic ideas onto small water craft and now I’m going all in in an attempt to exaggerate and scale up a basic concept. In truth it was the energy efficient powering of ocean going liners that made me come up with these ideas in the first place.
I have been on a few cruise trips, including ocean crossings on some magnificent vessels and enjoy it too much to want to give it up for the sake of the environment. But I have a conscience and want my actions to impact the world in which I live in the most sustainable way. I heard that cruise ships have an enormously disproportionate effect on natural resources and they are getting ever more popular so I wanted to come up with a solution to save the industry. I know, it’s all me, me, me.
But how do you electrify a huge cruise ship without if being tethered to a large cable attached to shore? The answer lies in utilising wave and solar power whilst out and about. And much like smaller boats and craft the onboard surface area is not sufficient to meet the needs of the many decks of energy hungry occupants below.
I therefore envisaged an idea that the vast surface area of a massive solar array could be towed behind to power the ship, all fitted out with steerable panels to zero in on the source of light power. Overall size and space taken up need not be a consideration due to the environment in which these vessels operate. Why not tow massive panel sets over a mile in length? If size requires it to be unhooked and anchored temporarily whilst the ship puts into ports then shore power can be used whilst the ship is there.
Yes, the towed power source will need some battery storage for harvesting power whilst unhooked, it would be best served with independent motors for manoeuvring and probably incorporate a small manned onboard control tower [and lifeboat for emergency], particularly if it is a mile long!
Finally add in some wave energy harnessing technology as well into this power station, possibly by articulation of sections of the craft and hey, I may just have had an idea that could help save the industry and our planet. And more importantly, my future cruise desires.
And finally, as a call back to the section above entitled Vans, Trucks and Lorries, remember my idea that all standardised containers incorporate solar panels. These adapted containers can all be linked whilst transported on massive container ships to provide more self sufficiency and even more planet saving. I’m starting to wonder whether I could actually be saving the equivalent of two planets by now.
Oh, and as for powering all the oil tankers chugging around the world. No need, they will all become redundant.
Summary Of Ideas
Wow, what a lot to think about. Just in case you have been overwhelmed by the number of innovative ideas in this one single article let me summarise them below.
- Towed solar panel arrays for vehicles
- Adjustable length towed arrays – Retractable roll out and stackable
- Adjustable towed arrays stored within the rear of vehicles
- Roadside recovery vehicles carrying spare, pre-charged roll out towed arrays
- Redesign of the universal container system to incorporate solar panels, adaptable enough to be joined up to help power a container ship
- Spray painted on solar panel arrays with laser etching
- Fixed solar panels within or without the parallel rail lines to power electrified trains and infrastructure on electrified and non electrified routes
- Harnessing wind created by high speed passing trains to power the network infrastructure
- Floating, towed solar panel arrays for canal craft, boats and even big ships
- Floating, towed solar panel arrays incorporating wave energy harnessing technology
Author: Vince Poynter
From the Ideas section of the vinceunlimited.co.uk web site Version 5.284 dated 15 Jan 2020 [First Publication]
These are conceptual ideas, untested and made without engineering calculations. For instance I have no idea how many more miles a towed array would make to an electrically propelled vehicle or craft. I do however surmise that it would be more with than without
I have not overly emphasised the additional components of solar panel and battery systems. I do understand that there would be other components such as solar charge controllers, inverters, wiring and isolation to consider. I also understand that all these things would add both weight and cost and be needed to be incorporated in either the vehicle or towed array or both. An unaccompanied, towed array left to soak up some sun whilst drifting quietly at sea would do no good to its owner when it returns if an onboard battery etc is not included
At the time of publication I had not fact checked whether any of the ideas listed above have already been produced, developed, patented or are in the process of development. All I claim is that I have not come across them naturally. If you know of such innovation already out there let me know and I’ll amend and credit accordingly
I place these concepts into the wild as I feel it wrong to keep them to myself and I also hope to inspire others and generate interesting discussion
As ever, my many ideas are never commercially exploited nor formally patented by me but I would like to see them used. I presume if you are the sort who takes up the ideas of others and passes them off as your own you would not be the sort who credits the original inventor or chucks them a bit of financial thanks. If however you are not such a dreadful monster my name is shown above. Find me, thank me, credit me, reward me. You’ll feel a much better human
These innovations have not been fully developed, tested, proven via prototype, safety tested, manufactured or fully engineered and are just conceptual ideas therefore the author cannot accept any liability for loss or damage in the testing, use or manufacture of any of these conceptual ideas