Dr. Rob Wilder is a classic Californian. The Encinitas resident enjoys surfing, dining, bicycling and travelling, all exactly as a good Californian should. He also owns an expensive car, another classic “Cali” expectation.
The difference between Wilder and other Californians, however, is that his expensive car doesn’t run on gas—his Tesla Roadster runs on electricity generated by solar energy.
Wilder has a Nissan LEAF to go along with his Tesla. He also has four other oil-based cars he calls “gassers:” a 1969 Lotus
Super 7, 1975 Mini, and an old Honda for road trips. All have at least 125,000 miles and were just never sold or junked.
Falling in love with nature
A former research faculty member and lecturer at University of California-Santa Barbara, Wilder is about as much of a natural born naturalist as anyone can be. He fell in love with the environment at an early age.
Wilder has been involved in multiple environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. He and his wife, as well as their two children, a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, lived in Maui until they moved to California.
“I’m originally from Baltimore,” Wilder says. “When I was graduating high school, I wanted to go out West.”
Wilder was particularly inspired by the West’s natural beauty after a camping trip that started in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and extended up to the Canadian Rockies. After the trip, Wilder decided to attend school in California.
“I went to college in Occidental for two years, the same place as Obama,” Wilder said. “Then I transferred to UC Santa Barbara, which was a great, great place, and I loved it.”
Wilder went on to achieve a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara as well as a law degree from the University of San Diego’s School of Law.
Tree hugger – or fish hugger?
“So I did a master’s and a Ph.D. [at Santa Barbara] and became a professor, which was great, but I also really wanted to be an activist,” he said. “Over the years, I was increasingly working with environmental groups. I ended up working for one group called the Nature Conservancy, and I was very involved with the Sierra Club and other ocean protection groups.”
Although he’s a big solar advocate, Wilder’s original inspiration for environmentalism is not solar PV.
“I’m a tree hugger but I’m foremost a fish lover,” he says. Laughingly, he adds: “Maybe a ‘fish hugger?’ I studied ocean topics and was really concerned about how we could protect the ocean. That was my thing, not just to study the ocean, but to find what we could do to protect it.”
A lot of Wilder’s original activism revolved around his concern for oceans.
“There was a lot that had to be done,” he explains. “To address overfishing and habitat destruction were two of the really bad things happening to the ocean then, and then the third really bad thing was pollution. We didn’t know yet, at the time, about ocean acidification, but we knew about things like damage from oil, like oil spills and intentional oil discharges.”
Getting off oil
As Wilder learned to dislike oil more and more, he began to think of the ways in which he could lower his own oil usage.
“I just really hated oil,” Wilder said. “The advantages of EVs could easily sway a person, but in my case, it was just a hatred for oil and what oil was doing to the oceans.”
So, Wilder took the first steps towards a more environmentally-friendly living by installing a roof-mounted set of solar panels with a 3.85 kW output at his house in 2003. He also looked to hire an engineer friend to build him a solar-charged vehicle.
“When we first bought our house in 2003, the very first thing I did was to put in solar,” he said. “At the time, there weren’t many electric cars, at least not production electric cars, not realistically, and so we were trying to build one for around $20,000. Let’s just say it was taking a long time, and that it was very difficult.”
After the plans to create his own electric vehicle fell through, Wilder began to look elsewhere.
I’ve always been a public interest kind of guy. What’s good for humanity and society and the earth, I believe in that. It’s that simple.
--Dr. Rob Wilder, long-time solar-charged driver
Getting past Roadster’s price tag
“So when this first production electric car was on the web, it was called a Tesla,” he said. “It was ridiculously expensive, almost $92,000, which was more than every car I’d ever owned put together.”
Wilder saw a lot of potential in the Tesla in spite of its price tag.
“I still put down a deposit because, as crazy as that price was, it was still—given it was a carbon fiber body and lithium ion battery—it was pretty amazing. I really had to suck in my breath hard and take a big leap to put down a deposit.”
The Tesla didn’t end up costing $92,000, however.“We ended up getting [the Tesla] and it was ‘only’ $79,500 [after tax credits] ,” he said. “It was still a huge amount of money, but it was amazing, and it was the first car that I could tie to my solar power.”
And he did just that—using his two solar arrays (the second was ground-mounted with a 2.8 kW output) to power his Tesla. Since Wilder drives around 30 to 40 miles a day, the Tesla Roadster’s 80-mile range worked very well for his purposes.
After the Tesla, he and his family considered investing in another electric vehicle.
LEAF added to EV collection
“Next came a pure battery electric LEAF,” he said. “That was much more affordable at only $20,000.” Originally $32,000, the LEAF dropped down in price after Wilder received a federal tax credit for $7,500 and a Californian credit for $5,000.
Wilder notes that he does not use his “gassers” very much. He said that he uses his LEAF the most because of its ability to balance sustainability with practicality.
Since getting his electric vehicles, Wilder has continued to pursue environmental activism. His most recent contribution was a report called “Nature Sense: The Economic Case for Dumping Gasoline and Powering Your Car by the Sun.” Its main focus is on the potential benefits of using solar-charged electric vehicles.
Wilder sees plenty of advantages in solar-charged EVs, mostly in their lack of contributing oil to the oceans. However, he also sees the fact that solar EV adoption may be held back by people’s over adaptation to oil-based vehicles.
“To many people, [solar charging vehicles] sounds too freaky, it sounds too unreal,” he said. “People are used to going to a gas station. If a Martian came and landed on earth, and you told the Martian that you could go to a gas station once a week and fill up on rock oil that’s really old dinosaur remains, that would sound weird to him. The notion of instead filling up every night on electricity from the grid, much of which is from the solar panels on your roof, would make total sense to the Martian, I think.”
In the future, Wilder looks to continue inspiring other like-minded people in his community and the world.
“I’ve always been a public interest kind of guy,” he said. “What’s good for humanity and society and the earth, I believe in that. It’s that simple."
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