Solar-powered Formula E can overtake Formula 1, says Richard Branson

Richard Branson, the British billionaire and owner of the Virgin brand, suggested at the weekend that the pace of development of electric vehicles (EV) is so great that the all-electric Formula E racing series will soon surpass Formula 1 as the de facto choice for racing enthusiasts and sponsors.

Speaking ahead of the U.K.’s first-ever 100% electric motor car race in London at the weekend – which featured solar-charged vehicles at the Battersea Park track in front of 60,000 spectators – Branson was bullish on EVs’ potential to seriously disrupt the automobile industry in all its guises.

"I think there is still going to be room for Formula 1 in the next few years, but four or five years from now you will see Formula E overtaking Formula 1," said the tycoon. "Just as clean energy type of businesses will power ahead of other types of businesses."

Branson said that he is "willing to bet" that 20 years from now no new vehicles will be made anywhere in the world that are not powered by an electric battery. "The current technology is antiquated and polluting and will disappear. Like other sectors, everything will be clean and companies that move quickest in that area are going to dominate the marketplace."

The Formula E racing series – the first season of which was fittingly won at the weekend by Nelson Piquet Jr, the son of Formula 1 legend Nelson Piquet – has attracted a strong following in a relatively short space of time since its opening race in Beijing last year.

Hailed as a "sexy" breakthrough in clean energy by Branson, the Formula E series is set to push clean technology to its limits in the same way that Formula 1 drove the development of traditional motoring. "Ten or 20 years ago, people might have thought electric cars were what granny drove, but now they see wonderful hybrids, Elon Musk’s cars, or Formula E vehicles going 140mph around the track," added Branson. "I think it will spur on the revolution the world needs."

Showcasing the power of solar

The final race in London at the weekend was the first in the world to use cars that have been regularly charged by solar, with even the safety and medical cars powered by solar-powered batteries located in the pit lane. The entire event was also connected to a small off-grid solar station consisting of 26 solar panels. This tiny array was used to power the big screens that displayed the race, as well as cell phone recharging stations and ticket scanners.

Although the 10 two-car teams were not directly solar-powered, the potential is there in the future, said FIA Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag. "The problem with solar is the rhythm at which the energy is generated or the amount of panels you need at any given moment. To charge all the racing cars, we would have to cover the whole park with solar panels."

Agag added, however, that Formula E’s denouement demonstrated what is possible. "Now what you need is to be able to store the energy because if you can store it [the solar power] for a day you have enough energy to charge the cars."

Agag spoke at the annual Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership conference in London last week, where it was revealed that the U.K. plans to have "every car on the road ultra low emission" by 2050.

"One day, electric vehicles will be the clear choice for the majority of drivers," said Andrew Jones MP. "This is a huge opportunity to make the U.K. one of the world’s leading markets and producers of electric cars." According to government forecasts, replacing the country’s fleet of private cars with EVs would help to prevent as many as 29,000 deaths – caused by pollutants – annually.

A study in March by Cambridge Econometrics found that the U.K. could cut its oil imports by 40% if six million EVs were deployed on British roads. This would also lead to a 47% drop in carbon emissions by 2030, saving each motorist more than $1,500 a year in fuel bills.

The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership surveyed motorists about their future purchases and found that almost half polled expect their next car to be an EV.

"The world is moving in our direction," said Agag. "It is not so easy to change the minds of 50 and 60 year olds, but the important ones are the kids because when they become 18 they will want to buy a car. We can have an effect on new generations."