Solar-powered e-rickshaws – harnessing clean energy to empower India’s mass-mobility

We are all familiar with the front runner of the EV revolution in India – the humble and ubiquitous electric rickshaw.

Quoting an ET report, “India is home to about 15 lakh e-rickshaws. As many as 11,000 new e-rickshaws hit the streets every month, and annual sales are expected to increase by about 9 per cent by 2021, according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney. Three-wheeled vehicles make up a $1.5 billion market.”

Given the scope and scale of e-rickshaws plying on Indian roads, can we think of ways to make them greener for the environment, more convenient for the drivers while helping them earn more?

Noida-based Sun Run Motors might have the answer.

Self-charging solar e-rickshaws

Founder, Ram Gupta runs a software company in California. On a visit to India in 2016, he noticed the proliferation of e-rickshaws and realised that solar panels could utilise the abundant sun to help propel these vehicles. After initial R&D and extensive market research, the team did a test run of Solar panel e-rickshaws in Sarita Vihar and J J colony in New Delhi and Rajasthan for 10 months. This period included a lot of data analysis and testing to make the end-product more efficient.

Ram shares “Our market research suggested that average e-rickshaw runs for 50-70 km in a day and the battery range of the vehicle plays a role in restricting the distance covered to this number.”

Speaking to a fleet operator based out of Chandigarh Tri-city area, EVreporter found that an e-rickshaw powered by Lithium-ion battery provides a range of 65-70 km and takes 2-2.5 hours to recharge, whereas an e-rickshaw powered by a lead-acid battery provides a range of 75-80 km and takes 7-8 hours to recharge. Because of the long recharge time, Lead-acid rickshaws are generally charged during the night only and driver’s daily earnings are restricted by the range; whereas in case of Lithium-ion batteries – drivers mostly take an extended lunch break to recharge their vehicles. {There are instances where a captive battery swapping model is offered by fleet operators, however, this comparison refers to independent drivers who do not have a swapping facility available}

Sun Run Motors claims that their e-rickshaws can provide 60-70 km on a summer day and 30-40 km on a winter day on solar energy alone. Effectively the solar panels on the e-rickshaw can support the daily operations for the drivers, helping them overcome range restrictions and make more money as they can avoid charge-wait period during work hours. 

Moreover, 98% of the e-rickshaws are powered by lead-acid batteries that need replacement every 6-8 months and cost between Rs. 25,000 to 28,000. Sun Run Motors claims that solar panel e-rickshaws can help increase the life of the battery to 2 years, and help the drivers save money.

When the vehicle is running, the output of the solar panels is directed to the motor to run the rickshaw. If the vehicle is stationary or off, the energy is used to charge the vehicle battery. This is managed by an automated control electronics system that is installed in the vehicle in addition to solar panels. The controller handles the variance in voltage produced by the solar panel and matches the same with the vehicle’s battery voltage.

Specialised Solar Panels

A proprietary manufacturing process (patent pending) is followed to ensure the suitability of the panels for a moving vehicle application. Solar cells and epoxy are imported from China and USA respectively while the rest of the components are locally procured in India where the manufacturing of the panels takes place. Special acrylic glass is used in place of regular glass to ensure safety, strength and durability. Monocrystalline cells ensure a high level of sensitivity to enable the panels to work in low light. Sun Run Motors claims the panels weigh the half and are 5 times stronger than the regular solar panels.

Solar panels on roof, sides and back

Highlighting the high prices of specialized solar panels and the inherent price sensitivity of the e-rickshaw market, Ram expressed his hope to get the solar-powered e-rickshaws eligible for the government subsidy under FAME as these self-charging vehicles are way greener than regular e-rickshaws. 

Proof of concept

The iCAT certified solar panel e-rickshaws are already being used by Border Security Force in Jharkand since January this year as well as by Noida Metro Rail Corporation (NMRC) to ferry the passengers between 2 metro stations since March 2019. NMRC is running the rickshaws from 6 AM to 10:45 PM. Each solar e-rickshaw at these stations is covering up to 130 km per day, out of which nearly 60 km are enabled by solar panels. Talking about future plans, Ram informed that they plan to launch the electric cargo loaders with installed solar panels. The first vehicles will be delivered to national level logistics companies operating from Noida and Hyderabad.

Retrofit

The solar panels (capacity of 850-900 watts for e-rickshaws) can be customised and installed on any electric vehicle to improve its range and lessen its dependence on thermal energy-driven charging infrastructure. Though Sun Run Motors have made arrangements to procure e-rickshaws from local suppliers in NCR according to their specifications and quality requirements, the company also offers solar panels as a retrofit solution. 

Talking about the variety of applications for these solar panels, Ram said, “Alongside EVs like e-rickshaws and Mahindra e-Supro, Maruti vans – given large roof area and Vikram autos are also excellent use cases for harnessing solar energy for propulsion.”

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