Home » Solar EV charging: The key to unlocking more sustainable travel?

Solar EV charging: The key to unlocking more sustainable travel?

by Mohammad Ghazal

Over the last decade, the number of Electric Vehicles (EVs) on the roads has grown considerably. By 2021, there were 16.5 million of them worldwide – triple the number in 2018. And it appears this trend is here to stay, too, with a recent study by Goldman Sachs projecting that by 2035 EVs will account for half of all new car sales worldwide.

The drive for net zero has been key here, while the ongoing energy crisis is also influencing interest in renewables. This is also true in the Middle East, where growing climate change awareness, national net-zero pledges, and soaring petrol prices are fuelling the switch. Forecasts are that in the UAE alone, the EV market will grow at an annual rate of 30 per cent between 2022 and 2028.

However, while EVs go some way to solving transport’s sustainability issue, they’re not without their challenges, charging being a particular obstacle to wider adoption, with lack of infrastructure and energy prices a prime concern for EV users.

Solar EV charging eliminates some of these issues, and the MENA provides the perfect climate to facilitate this. While currently in its nascent stage, this technology could be the next big thing.

A lack of infrastructure

The challenges associated with traditional EV charging have directly impacted EV investment, production and uptake. This is demonstrated in the number of electric cars increasing nearly three times faster than charging points in the last seven years.

In the UK, for example, almost a third of all charging points are located in London; this is despite the government supporting EV development with various subsidies and incentives. This centralisation of charging points in big cities is also witnessed in the Middle East. Many subsequently argue that lack of infrastructure is the primary barrier preventing the EV revolution from being fully realised.

Comparatively, in Norway, where EVs made up the majority of car sales last year, the Norwegian government has supported the development of EV charging infrastructure by establishing fast-charging stations every 50km on all main roads.

Although the EV landscape is still relatively underdeveloped in the MENA, the region is gradually transitioning away from gas-powered cars, spurred by climate change awareness and demand for more sustainable transportation.

Again, tax exemptions and subsidies for EVs are becoming increasingly common, but, similarly, a lack of charging infrastructure is the source of range anxiety, with the exception of the UAE, which currently ranks eighth globally in readiness for electric mobility, with some of the highest charging points-to-vehicle ratios.

Speaking about how these challenges are stunting EV adoption, Dr Fadi Ghaith, Head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, said that EVs still account for only about 14% of total new car sales. Further, Ghaith predicts that it will take a while to “fully embrace electric vehicles,” with significant investment in charging infrastructure required.

Harnessing the power of the sun

Solar EV charging converts sunlight sourced from solar panels into DC electricity; a connected inverter then changes this into AC electricity which is sent to a distribution board for powering vehicles. The result? Huge savings in emissions.

Researchers at Oregon State University studied the scalability of this via agrivoltaic systems (AVS) to alleviate range anxiety and found that not only is there the potential to reduce around 3.1 million tons of CO2, but that only 3 per cent of total land would be required to supply power to 86 per cent of rural highway access sites in Oregon. This also has applications outside the US, especially in the MENA, a region capable of producing abundant solar energy.

Speaking about this, Ashraf Abdelkhalek, Gulf Sustainability Leader, Schneider Electric, said the Middle East, particularly the UAE, is the world’s third-largest solar power producer and emerging as a hub for sustainable innovation. It’s not unlikely, then, that the region could become a leader in the solar EV charging space.

Abdelkhalek explained that eMobility is “vital” for a sustainable, connected mobility ecosystem: “The MENA region is increasingly embracing electric and solar-powered transportation,” he said. Adding: “The UAE recently introduced the world’s first long-range, production-ready solar electric vehicle, signaling a paradigm shift towards solar EV charging over traditional methods in pursuit of a net-zero future.”

According to Abdelkhalek, robust energy management infrastructure and intelligent, eco-friendly charging solutions are “critical” to this transformation.

Abdelkhalek outlined Schneider Electric’s solar-charged distribution hub as an example of its capabilities in this space. The hub features a solar rooftop, which provides up to 90% of the site’s energy requirements. It also employs 16 Schneider Electric solar inverters, generating 2,088 MWh in its first year, offsetting nearly 1,500 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Solar lights up in Lebanon

Lebanon is currently grappling with a severe and ongoing power problem, where the government only provides electricity for an average of between one to three hours a day. This crisis has birthed a solar boom, which is being tapped into as the solution to a lack of reliable and cost-effective energy. Between 2010 and 2022, for example, solar power capacity rose from zero to 870 MW; 650 megawatts (MW) of this were installed in 2022 alone. Yet, a lack of regulation around solar installation means that the surge in solar is individualised, privatised, and a luxury only the most wealthy can afford.

This move to solar is, however, being mirrored in the EV charging space, too, that’s according to Tony Sakr, CEO of Sakr Power Group. Sakr said that the country is actively embracing solar EV charging as a “sustainable solution” that bypasses some of the challenges associated with traditional EV charging, such as long charging times and grid restraints. The growing interest in this space in the region has been demonstrated with events such as the E-Motorshow recently held in Beirut and attended by ESG Mena, which showcased EVs not yet available in the Gulf region.

“With abundant sunshine and a growing interest in renewable energy, solar-powered EV charging stations are gaining traction,” Sakr said. He outlined that while the current solar EV charging landscape in MENA is gradually expanding, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan leading the way, Lebanon is also witnessing “positive developments.”

According to Sakr, in the region, technologies like smart charging systems, bidirectional charging, DC to DC, and energy management platforms are being developed to optimise solar EV charging.

Sakr projects that the solar EV charging market will evolve significantly in Lebanon. “Increasing environmental awareness, supportive policies, and declining costs of solar technology will drive adoption. Collaboration between stakeholders, including government bodies, utilities, and private entities, will be crucial to develop a robust infrastructure and create a sustainable ecosystem for solar EV charging in Lebanon,” he added.

Indeed to fully realise this and make EV charging green for good in Lebanon and the wider Mena region, key issues such as solar intermittency need to be tended to, with greater investment in new energy storage technologies. As Sakr explains, integration with energy storage solutions enables “efficient utilisation” of solar power and ensures charging availability during non-daylight hours. Likewise, experts say that a robust legal framework is required for the wider adoption of renewable energy in places such as Lebanon.

The sun rises on solar EV charging innovation

Recent years have seen an influx in companies creating solar EV charging solutions that directly address some of the main issues associated with charging. In the UK, for example, 3ti’s Papilio3, dubbed the ‘world’s first’ solar-powered pop-up EV charging station, uses recycled shipping containers fitted with modular canopies, which can support 36 solar panels. The pop-up stations can be deployed easily within 24 hours and without new grid connections. Further, its charge points have charging capacities of 7, 11 and 22 kW, with battery storage capacity of up to 250 kWh.

SolarBotanic’s solar charging trees are also currently in development and intend to tackle some of the issues associated with deploying solar EV charging in dense metropolitan areas. The startup’s charging innovation is built to mimic the structure of a tree and includes a dome made up of photovoltaic (PV) ‘leaves’ that harness solar energy. The innovation has also been selected by the Central Research Laboratory (CRL) for its 2023 Accelerator Programme to develop the first commercial prototype.

While progress is undeniably slow in this area, according to Ghaith, the market is set to grow at a CAGR of around 35% between 2021-2026. He highlighted GHG reductions as one of the primary draws, and indeed, in a year, just one electric car on the road can save 1.5 million grams of CO2; solar EV charging pushes these GHG savings even higher.

Solar EV charging, undoubtedly, has huge potential to shape the future of transport in the region. And, in the Year of Sustainability, leading up to COP28, 2023 could just be the year the world wakes up to the promise of solar.

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