By AUTOOBSERVER STAFF August 19, 2011
Electric vehicles and solar power seem to be a perfect match. That’s what Bruce Tucker, a retired microbiologist, says. He’s got both an electric car and a solar system that provide his household power – including the juice that goes into his 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV. So far, it’s been mostly individuals like Tucker who’ve been singing the praises of running cars on sunshine, but the chorus is getting louder as major automaker and solar power companies see the light.
SolarCity, the nation’s largest developer and installer of photovoltaic power systems – those rooftop panels that convert sunlight into electricity – and Ford Motor Co., which is about to start marketing several plug-in vehicles of its own, separately announced programs this month that tie EV chargers and home solar systems together in a package.
Ford’s partnership with solar power company SunPower will provide customers with a 2.5-kilowatt rooftop solar system to power chargers for the upcoming Focus Electric and C-Max plug-in hybrid, both due next year.
Ford says the system will cost about $10,000 before rebates and will be available through dealers in the initial markets for the two EVS. A household with a $200 monthly electric bill can expect to earn back the cost of the solar system in five years or less after rebates and tax credits are applied. Solar City said it has partnered with EV-charger maker Clipper Creek for a package that provides a discounted charger for customers who buy or lease a solar power system.
The company, which was founded by Elon Musk, the high-tech entrepreneur who serves as its chairman and also is chairman and chief executive of EV-maker Tesla Motors, says the average San Francisco Bay Area resident would pay about $107 per month to power an EV with electricity from a photovoltaic system. That compares with $230 per month to fuel a comparably sized gas-powered car, based on $3.65 per gallon of gas. Ben Tarbell, SolarCity’s vice president for product, said most of the company’s residential customers in its 12-state service area choose to lease 2-kilowatt system for about $54 per month, usually for a 20-year term. The deal with Clipper Creek will get them a 240-volt Level II EV charger and installation for an additional $1,500.
Tucker wonders why it took so long for the big boys to start making the connection. After purchasing his 4-kilowatt, 44-panel system, the Thousand Oaks, Calif., resident and his wife now pay just $1.80 a month – the utility’s connection fee – for more than enough solar-generated power to provide all his home and EV-charging needs. “They just make so much sense together,” Tucker said, adding that about half the EV drivers he knows of have home photovoltaic systems. Tarbell said his company estimates that about 40 percent of all EV owners use photovoltaic systems for all or part of their charging power. It’s the other 60 percent that Ford and Solar City want to attract.
“With the growing interest and awareness of electric vehicles, it’s becoming more mainstream,” Tarbell said. Many of his company’s photovoltaic system customers who don’t already have an EV are considering making their next vehicle one with a plug – either a full-EV like a Nissan Leaf or a range-extended plug-in hybrid like the Chevrolet Volt. He said that requests to provide enough power generating capacity for an EV charger are becoming commonplace.
There are other 240-volt home charging systems on the market, and any of them can draw power form a home solar system. Big-box electronics retailer Best Buy plans to market a 240-volt home charger for the Mitsubishi “i” when the small EV goes on sale this fall in select markets and also has said it will sell systems for the Focus Electric. Big electronics manufacturers including Leviton and General Electric are building chargers for clients to be sold under their own names, and some carmakers, like Nissan, have signed into partnerships with charger companies.
Kent Bullard paid about $1,300, including permit and installation, for a 240-volt charger from AeroVironment, the official Nissan charging partner, earlier this year. He had the charger, the first of its kind in the city of Ventura, Calif., installed in his garage because he anticipated taking delivery of his Nissan Leaf in April. “I wanted to be prepared for the car,” said Bullard, who took delivery of his Leaf early this month after a delay caused by production shutdowns in Japan in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami there.
Bullard has found that his 4.2-killowatt rooftop setup, which listed for $28,000 but actually cost only about $12,000 after $8,300 in state and $7,500 federal tax credits, generates excess energy. Unlike the Tuckers, who split daily charging between home and Molly Tucker’s office at biotech giant Amgen, the Bullards plug their Leaf in at home every night after Cathy Bullard’s 40-mile commute and their weekend outings.
Kent Bullard said he pays an average of 6 cents a day for the utility company connection charge but has no other electricity costs right now. Charging the Leaf could add some, especially at the lowest energy-generating periods in gloomy winter months (also typically a household’s highest energy consumption periods), but Bullard doesn’t expect the cost to be much. He said that if he’d spent the full $28,000 on the system and hadn’t received any rebates, it would take about 12 years to earn back the initial expense. That would seem to suggest a 6- to 8-year-payback period for the lower post-incentive cost plus any additional costs of charging an EV.
Tarbell says that marketing solar power to EV and plug-in hybrid owners is a matter of convincing them that the technology to live a nearly gasoline-free life is here. “It’s surprising to people,” he said. “We’re telling [them] it’s not too good to be true.”