A Car, Powered By the Sun

Posted on by Ciro Giammona I can remember learning about cars and smog while in elementary school in the 60’s, and one of our assignments was to write an essay about what would fuel the cars of the future, once the world’s oil supply eventually ran out. My classmates and I came up with plenty of “crazy”, unfettered ideas, and a car that would be powered by the sun was surely one of them. I guess I’ve always been kind of a geek, and when I began to study electronics in high school, I was intrigued by the idea that with the invention of photovoltaic solar cells, sunlight light could be converted to electricity. Our teacher told us that they solar cells were fine for powering a transistor radio, but they would never be able to generate enough electricity to power a car. Now with the passage of time and through the amazing advances in technology, as impossible as it once must have seemed, I can now say that I drive a car that is powered by the sun. That possibility has been a long time in the making, but when it finally came about, it happened quickly. A couple of years ago, on a lark, I bought a used electric car imported from, where else? - China. It was really only a “glorified prototype” with a top speed of 40 miles per hour, a range of 15 miles, and absolutely no safety features, but it got me back and forth to work in fair weather and made me feel good about reducing my carbon footprint. Every commute day was an adventure, and I felt somewhat like a pioneer, wondering if today was the day that I wouldn’t make it home. So it wasn’t a huge leap for my wife and I to make a reservation for a Nissan Leaf on the company’s website, as soon as we found out it was possible to do so. One Tsunami and a few months later and we got a call that our all-electric car was on the way. That’s when the reality of what it would take to charge began to get my attention. It was clear from the beginning that the electricity required would cost less than gas, but based on our electricity usage, we were already in PG&E’s Tier 4, paying 2.6 times our baseline rate by the end of each month. Obviously, an electric car was going to make our electric bill go up even more. So we began to wonder if this was the right time to consider getting solar panels installed on our home. As a Certified Green Building Professional at Harrell Remodeling, I had already learned a lot about Green remodeling and solar technology, so I knew there would be some great reasons to combine PV and EV (Photovoltaic and Electric Vehicle) in our household, but having just bought a new car, the idea of another large expense was unsettling to say the least. Working through this with our solar installer and then crunching more numbers on my own, I realized that if I applied the tax credits, rebates and other incentives for the car to the solar along with its own tax credits, rebates and incentives, we would have the solar installation paid off in less than 6 months, leaving only the car payment. Furthermore, with the money saved on gas and the reduction in our electricity use each month, the net outlay for the car would be less than $300 a month. What I had been reading about solar power eventually becoming cost competitive with other methods of generating electricity was coming to pass right before my very eyes. I suppose I could still be considered an “early adopter” - one those people who are willing to take a chance on a technology until it becomes mainstream. My sense is that all-electric vehicles and new plug-in hybrids are becoming mainstream very quickly. My Leaf effortlessly achieves freeway speeds, gets me to and from work with power to spare and is highly rated for safety with airbags and numerous other features. It’s very quiet and actually a lot of fun to drive, and while in some ways I still feel like a pioneer, I have no doubts that it will get me home. The main objection that people voice about the Leaf is that it has a maximum of 80 to 100 mile range on a full charge. A couple of statistics that are worth considering is that there is an average of 2.28 cars per household in the U.S., and one of those is driven an average of 29 miles per day. That’s almost exactly how it plays out for our household, and while this thought might be naively simplistic, using that set of stats alone would seem to justify using an electric car or plug-in hybrid to replace half of the cars on the road! Considering that I’ve been dreaming of the possibility since I was a kid, it is remarkable and rewarding that a sun-powered car has become a reality in my lifetime.
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