The company says it was getting some energy from “solar cells” on the outside of its Model S vehicles in California. So I asked the Tesla spokesperson, who said “We’re not sure.”
My next thought: Solar cells are a little different than photovoltaic cells, or PV cells. PVs (the acronym stands for “primary-axis current wave”) are based on a power conversion technology called primary charge transfer (PCT), which converts the energy of light to motion of electrons that can be converted into electricity.
Tesla’s PVs run on sunlight and use electrons, or “holes” in the material, to produce a current. A PV cell captures sunlight from a surface and directs it through a hole into an electrode to generate energy. While there are different forms of PVs, this is commonly used as a replacement for traditional PV cells, often paired with cells containing semiconducting materials to capture energy.
My colleague Mike Murphy put together a map of California PV arrays over last year that shows all these different PVs. So what do Tesla’s free energy claims have in common?
Solar cells that collect sunlight
It turns out that there are two types of photovoltaic cells: cell stacked on top of one another — and cell stacked on top of a silicon wafers.
Silicon wafers are used to make an array to collect sunlight. These wafers are usually placed atop a silicon substrate, like a tile, to improve efficiency.
When I was on the ground with Tesla and their spokespeople, I could see the wafers. If I stood underneath such a wafer, it would be exposed to sunlight to make an active solar cell.
I also walked into a factory and saw a “battery cell” rack that houses multiple lithium ion batteries inside. Lithium ion batteries generate electricity when placed on surfaces to generate an electric current through the materials.
These wafers are only part of the problem because lithium ion batteries are “batteries” with an active part (battery) inside.
The solar cells used in the Tesla Powerwall, which are not technically solar cells, are designed to convert sunlight to electrical energy. The wafer, however, contains silicon inside to absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity that is stored in the battery.
In fact, the entire Tesla powerwall is built on a wafer that is essentially a solar cell with a silicon photovolt
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