Hanergy’s Solar-Only Car Goal Draws Doubt as Quickly Achievable

Plans by Hanergy Thin Film Power Group Ltd. to build a car powered only by solar panels remain a mystery two months after being publicized, and analysts are skeptical the company can meet a goal to roll out prototypes this year.

Hanergy’s Hong Kong-listed shares have soared sixfold in a year, making it the world’s most valuable solar manufacturer. Earlier this year, Chairman Li Hejun said in an e-mailed statement that the company would work with partners to roll out as many as five solar prototype cars by October.

On Monday, Hanergy announced deals to outfit recreational vehicles, tour buses and catering trucks in China with solar cells that would help run some individual systems. However, the company hasn’t yet identified partners in its quest to build cars that run solely on solar. Such a step would require a leap past significant technological hurdles, analysts said.

“Selling panels to other companies for integration is a business that makes sense for Hanergy,” Charles Yonts, head of sustainable research at brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Hong Kong, said in an e-mail. “It’s a far cry from designing or building their own cars.”

Even with Hanergy’s most efficient panels, an electric car would get the range only if it’s “always in the sun during the day,” he said.

Li’s vision, as outlined in the February statement, calls for cars capable of traveling as much as 100 kilometers on four hours of charge time in the sun. Power will come from six square meters (64 square feet) of thin-film solar cells affixed to their bodies.

Market Value

Hanergy Thin Film Power, a unit of Beijing-based Hanergy Holding Group Ltd., has a market value of more than HK$286 billion ($37 billion). The company’s annual results presentation published April 2 included artist renderings of the proposed vehicles.

The systems outlined Monday are expected to generate 6 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day in normal sunlight for electronics such as lighting, refrigeration and cooking, the company said. The touring vehicle will use six 75-watt panels from MiaSole Inc. to generate 2 kilowatt-hours a day of electricity in normal light.

MiaSole is the California-based thin-film panel maker bought by Hanergy Holding in January 2013.

“Thin-film power generation is the ultimate way that people will use energy,” Li said Monday at a news conference in Beijing. Thin-film solar power can “reduce or completely replace the fossil fuel” in cars.

Solar Roof

Thin-film panels require less semiconductor material than the polysilicon panels that dominate the market, and fewer steps to manufacture. They can generate more power under low-light conditions and in hotter climates.

Toyota Motor Corp. has offered a solar roof as an option on its Prius hybrid car since 2009. The solar panel can run an electric fan to cool the cabin and doesn’t provide any additional power to the battery that helps run the car.

While electric vehicles are becoming more common on the road -- China’s government has extended incentives to promote their use as a way to cut emissions and reduce pollution -- vehicles that run only on sunlight remain largely the stuff of competitions and university projects.

“Solar-powered cars are a bit impractical,” especially in cities with large buildings and where cars sit in parking lots in the daytime and at night, said Harry Chen, an analyst at Guotai Junan Securities Co. in Shenzhen, China.

A solar car will take longer to charge than a plug-in electric version, Chen said.

Batteries Required

Solar cars would likely require expensive batteries to run at night, said Jacob George, vice president of global consulting at J.D. Power and Associates, a market research company. After a fast charge, electric cars would be able to go about 40 to 50 kilometers (25 to 31 miles) but cars with the kind of range Li has promised would require overnight charging, George said.

“We haven’t seen that in the market yet,” George said.

Solar power may be more practical for the vehicles announced Monday than for electric cars, according to Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“Putting solar panels on vehicles which will be stationary for most of the day is more sensible than putting them on vehicles which will move a lot,” Chase said in an interview.

Assuming the panels have 20 percent efficiency, that would translate to about 1.2 kilowatts of photovoltaic power, Chase estimated in a March 9 research note. Current electric cars use about 16 to 20 kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometers.

Sales Diversification

Hanergy has increasingly applied its technology to the automotive industry since 2014 to diversify revenue sources. The company’s sole source of revenue in 2013 and 2012 came from its parent ordering manufacturing lines. The company now sees automobile applications as one of its eight main business units.

The company last year provided three solar power station systems for the first grand prix race of the 2014 season of the FIA Formula E Championship in Beijing, according to its annual report. Each system was able to charge seven racing cars under normal sunlight.

The company in 2014 made three photovoltaic supercharger stations for Tesla to charge electric vehicles in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, using MiaSole technology.

Hanergy also purchased Alta Devices Inc. in August, another thin-film provider. Alta Devices’s technology has a conversion efficiency -- the ratio of energy produced by the cell compared with the energy received from the sun -- of 30.8 percent. Hanergy said at the time that was the highest among solar energy technologies currently available in the world.

‘Mobile Solar’

Thin-film solar cells are made by placing layers of photovoltaic material on a substrate such as glass, plastic or metal. In Hanergy’s earnings statements, annual reports and news releases, Li often refers to “mobile solar” technology and the potential to place thin-film solar cells on everything from backpacks to street lights.

“You can’t say the thin-film technology is marvelous or not doable -- the market will tell,” said Meng Xiangan, vice chairman of the China Renewable Energy Society. “Hanergy can test its choice as long as they find their positioning in the market.”

— With assistance by Feifei Shen

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