Car-sharing goes solar in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — You don’t need to invest in a solar system and an EV or PHEV in order to drive a solar-charged car – at least not if you live in Minneapolis.

Just sign up with HOURCAR, a Minneapolis-St. Paul car-sharing organization founded by the non-profit Neighborhood Energy Connection, and you just might get a chance to drive one of their two modified solar-charged Toyota Prius PHEVs.

HOURCAR says it is the first car-sharing program in the U.S. to offer its customers the chance to drive a solar-charged car, albeit a partially solar-charged one.

“We really want to do whatever we can to promote alternative energies and sustainable ways for people to power their transportation,” says HOURCAR Program Manager Christopher Bineham. “Solar-powering some of our cars gave us the opportunity to be involved in this in a significant way.”

Like many PHEVs, HOURCAR’s two Prius PHEVs – modified by the company A123 Systems – run primarily off a 5 kW battery for about 40 miles before the car shifts into full hybrid mode.

The two Prius PHEVs, each with a separate solar system to charge them, are part of a 21-car HOURCAR fleet.

Hourcar grows quickly
Since its launch four years ago in response to a neighborhood initiative to create a car-sharing option for Minneapolis and St. Paul residents, HOURCAR has grown from zero to 850 members.

HOURCAR allows members – who are screened according to a number of criteria, most notably their driving records — to share cars across a network of 19 “hubs,” or locations where cars are parked, returned and exchanged.

The lowest available rates are six dollars per hour plus 25 cents per mile, or 55 dollars for a weekday. For a monthly fee of $15, members can drive up to 100 miles before having to pay the 25 cents per mile fee.

According to Bineham, car-sharing generally works quite well and is a good, economical answer for those who rarely, if ever, use a car, and/or those who have one car and occasionally need a second one.

“Generally, it goes pretty smoothly,” he says. “But whenever you are sharing something, this means that others are using the same thing you are using, and, as with any community, there is the potential for conflict.”

When conflict occurs, it typically centers on different standards of cleanliness or people returning a car late, says Bineham.

Of course, HOURCAR does have specific rules its members are expected to follow.

Contributing to sustainability
According to Bineham, HOURCAR’s primary impetus is environmental.

“We believe the act of car-sharing itself contributes to sustainability,” he says.

A grant awarded by the Minnesota Department of Commerce Office of Energy Security in the summer of 2008 helped HOURCAR become the first car-sharing organization in the U.S. to offer customers the opportunity to drive a partially solar-charged car.

The grant funded two separate 2 kW solar systems, one for each of the two Prius PHEVs, both of which went up in October of 2008.

“We saw it as a way to move solar energy forward. We hope that by doing this in the long run we can help solar become more affordable and more feasible for others.”
–Christopher Bineham, Program Manager, HOURCAR

The idea for offering customers solar-charged cars grew over time, and from a commitment on the part of multiple individuals at HOURCAR to a greener world.

“We saw it as a way to move solar energy forward,” says Bineham. “We hope that by doing this in the long run we can help solar become more affordable and more feasible for others.”

Bineham says that HOURCAR would not have been able to pioneer the synthesis between solar energy, PHEVs and car-sharing if it had not been awarded the Office of Energy Security grant.

“The funding was the biggest obstacle,” Bineham says.

The 2 kW systems cost $18,000 each. In fact, this is considerably more than an individual consumer would pay for the same system. That’s because, as a nonprofit, and unlike individual consumers, HOURCAR is not eligible for utility and/or Federal Tax Credits.

Unsure of economics of solar-charging
Right now, it’s uncertain whether, in the long run, HOURCAR will break even, or perhaps make money by solar-charging the two Prius PHEVs, both estimated to get 100 mpg.

“It’s not clear if it’s going to pay for itself,” says Bineham. “But the other benefits make it all worthwhile.”

At the very least, becoming the first car-sharing organization in the U.S. to solar-charge part of its fleet has generated considerable media coverage for HOURCAR. Bineham says the organization has had five or six stories published or aired about it in local newspapers and on local television news.

In fact, HOURCAR has a web page with links to 11 media stories about its solar-charged PHEVs, including one written by an organization in the UK.

If the media have responded with enthusiasm to HOURCAR’s solar-charged driving pioneering, how have HOURCAR users responded?

According to Bineham, very positively.

“Many of our members are involved because they want to minimize the amount they drive and because they want to live more sustainable lives,” he notes. “So, to have cars powered by solar-power is icing on cake for them. It’s also a novelty for them.”

Bineham says new HOURCAR members are often surprised the simplicity and convenience of fueling a PHEV.

“You just plug it in, and, when you’re done, you unplug it,” he says. “They’re impressed by how easy it is.”

No immediate plans to expand solar PHEV fleet
Bineham says HOURCAR has no plans to grow its solar-charged fleet for now. Nor does he know of any other U.S. car-sharing organizations planning to add solar-charged PHEVs to their fleet.

However, HOURCAR is watching developments within the auto industry, including its plans to deliver EVs and PHEVs en masse.

“We’re excited to see what happens as companies start getting more serious about providing the [EV/PHEV] technology,” he says. “We hope to be able to launch some of those vehicles as they become available.”

Bineham’s uncertain what the concrete impact of HOURCAR’s solar-charged PHEVs has been. But he says he has heard customers say that having the two solar-charged PHEVs available to them has inspired at least some to think about the connection between solar energy and PHEVs and EVs.

“It’s got them thinking about this as a viable option,” he says.