SUN PWRD: California couple wows world with solar-charged RAV4

paul-zanA 2002 Toyota RAV4 doesn’t normally inspire dropped jaws — unless, of course, you’re talking about Paul Scott’s and Zan Dubin Scott’s RAV4.

The Santa Monica, Calif. couple has been wowing other drivers for seven years and 75,000 miles in their 2002 RAV4. Not with a fancy paint job, not with a 10,000 watt stereo system, not with a sizzling 0-60 time, but by driving their car on sun.

Scott and Dubin Scott, who advertise the fact that they’re driving on sunshine by way of a custom California license plate that reads, “SUN PWRD,” and by way of an electric vehicle logo on their car, have gotten the thumbs up from many people over the years. And not just from other drivers.

In fact, Dubin Scott’s favorite recognition moment in their RAV4 came when a high-powered bicyclist overtook her and registered his approval of the fact that she — in contrast to pretty much everyone else — was not spewing gas fumes, particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into his lungs as he worked to improve his health.

“That was one of the great moments of my life,” recalls Dubin Scott. “When he moved ahead of me and gave me the thumbs up, it connected all of the dots for me.”

Social and individual benefits of EVs
In other words, this bicyclist’s thumbs up concretely underscored the individual and social benefits of driving an EV (electric vehicle) powered by the sun. Chief among these: the fact that EVs produce essentially no emissions.

It’s this commitment to an auto emissions-free life for bikers — and for all of us — that’s driven Scott and Dubin Scott to advocate for EVs through the non-profit organization Plug In America, for which Scott serves as vice president and for which Dubin Scott is the communications director.

“After the surgery, Paul said, ‘I’m not postponing my dreams any longer. I asked him what his dream was, and he said, ‘Solar panels on the roof’.“
— Zan Dubin Scott

The commitment and drive to promote EVs and to drive what comes very close to a completely Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) — Scott estimates that about 60 percent of the 10,000 miles he and Dubin Scott put on their RAV4 are solar-charged miles — comes from a deep environmentalism streak on Scott’s and Dubin Scott’s part.

The specific decision to tap the synergy between solar energy and EVs, a decision Scott estimates up to 50 percent of current EV owners have made, came at a life-altering moment for Scott and Dubin Scott, or right after successful surgery to combat Scott’s bladder cancer in the summer of 2002.

The surgery came just four months after Scott and Dubin Scott had been married.

Solar power dreams
“After the surgery, Paul said, ‘I’m not postponing my dreams any longer,” recalls Dubin Scott. “I asked him what his dream was, and he said, ‘Solar panels on the roof’.”

When Scott, currently a solar consultant for SolarCity, a California based solar company, began researching solar for the couple’s Santa Monica home, he discovered the EV world.

He quickly realized that he and Dubin Scott could not only power their home’s electricity via solar, but that they could solar-charge an EV as well.

Scott got excited — very excited.

“I thought, ‘Everyone is going to want to do this’ ,” he says.

Charged in part by their worldview-altering experience with Scott’s cancer, Scott and Dubin Scott acted on their excitement.

Soon, they had a 1.8 kW solar system on their roof — they’ve since increased the size of the system to 2.5 kW, which generates about 5,000 kWh per year — and a 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV in their driveway.

A week after they’d plugged into the synergy between EVs and solar energy, major automakers such as GM, Toyota and Ford pulled the plug on EVs. They began pulling back the EVs they’d leased.

Picture of back end of Toyota RAV4 EV and customized license plate, SUN PWRD.Automakers’ attempt to kill EVs spawns a movement
Angry EV lessees and EV owners banded together to try to hold on to their vehicles and a movement — whose birth has famously been captured in what has become a cult “classic” documentary, “Who killed the electric car” — was born.

Although Scott and Dubin Scott were among the lucky few able to purchase an EV outright rather than lease one, they climbed aboard the EV movement.

They haven’t gotten off since.

“From that moment forward, we basically lost our personal lives and became full-time advocates for Plug in America,” says Dubin Scott.

In fact, along with others at Plug In America, a coalition of RAV4-EV drivers, former EV lessees, and advocates of clean air and energy independence, which banded together and was officially recognized as a California non-profit in January 2008, Scott and Dubin Scott have dedicated countless hours to trying to save EVs, and, after succeeding on that front – about 1,000 EVs were saved by citizen advocacy, says Scott — to promoting EVs.

With most of the major automakers now poised to roll EVs and/or PHEVs (plug in hybrid electric vehicles) off their assembly lines, the dedication of those in the EV movement has paid off.

However plenty of work remains to be done, say Scott and Dubin Scott.

For instance, many consumers aren’t well-informed about  EVs and PHEVs. Worse, say Scott and Dubin Scott, what they do “know” is often colored by misinformation spread by public relations firms hired by big oil companies.

Transferring pollution from tailpipe to the power plant?
“A lot of people, when you start talking about EVs, say, ‘You’re just transferring the pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant,” says Scott. “My answer to that is, ‘Why do you have a problem with ‘dirty’ electricity running cars and you don’t have a problem powering your house with ‘dirty’ electricity?’ “

In fact, many consumers don’t know the name of their electric utility, much less what mix of energy their utility uses to produce the electricity lighting up their home, says Scott.

Nationwide, according to the Pace University Power Scorecard, 57 percent of electricity is generated by the burning of coal. Most of the rest of the electricity is produced by burning natural gas, with smaller amounts generated by nuclear power, and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric.

Among other things, Scott advocates for:

  • consumers to inform themselves about the energy forms used to power their home’s electricity;
  • consumers who have a home and the roof space to strongly consider putting solar panels on their home;
  • consumers to buy electricity generated by renewable energy from their utility – if their utility offers this option, and, if it does not, to actively lobby their utility to produce electricity via renewable energy forms.

The fact that EVs — in contrast to gasoline autos — can be powered by various forms of energy, including renewable forms such as solar and wind, is, according to Scott, a crucial reason the U.S., and the world, should pursue EVs as the primary alternative to combustion engine automobiles.

“For those who can [solar-charge], they will do it. They are going to jump all over it. If you’ve got a good roof, can avoid the gas station, and use sunlight as your fueling system, why wouldn’t you do it?”
— Paul Scott

“EVs are clearly better than gasoline powered cars from an environmental perspective,” says Scott.

EVs boast economic and national security advantages as well, says Scott, who notes that while much of America’s oil must be imported, coal, natural gas, and, better yet, sun, can be produced domestically.

How many are driving on sun?
It’s unclear how many people in the U.S. are currently using the latter option, sun, to run their EV.

In an informal and unscientific survey of EV owners conducted three years ago, about 50 percent of the approximately 300 EV owners who responded said they have solar panels on their home, says Scott.

Scott says that while he expects the total number of Americans who solar-charge EVs to go up as EVs start to roll off automakers’ assembly lines next year, he also anticipates the percentage of EV owners driving at least partially on the sun will go down.


Paul Scott, SolarCity consultant, talks to another SolarCity worker in a pick-up truck.Because the total number of EV owners will soon rise substantially.

Currently, the total number of EVs in the U.S. stands at approximately 40,000, with the majority of these vehicles low-speed EVs used mostly on college campuses, golf courses, retirement communities, etc., according to a Greentechmedia article, Trivia Question: How Many Electric Cars Are There in the U.S.?, published in the spring of 2009.

While a big advocate of solar, Scott estimates that probably no more than five percent of America’s drivers are in a position to solar-charge an EV. At the same time, he notes that five percent of the total number of drivers in America represents a number in the millions.

“For those who can [solar-charge], they will do it,” says Scott. “They are going to jump all over it. If you’ve got a good roof, can avoid the gas station, and use sunlight as your fueling system, why wouldn’t you do it?”

In addition to the environmental and independence incentives, the fact that solar-charging an EV can make a solar system pay off more quickly also increases the appeal of solar-charging, says Scott.

One might say that the lack of access to EVs partly explains the small number of Americans who are solar-charging.

Why so few Americans with solar?
However, at this point, very few Americans have solar panels on their home. How does one explain this?

“People have the idea that solar is very expensive beat into them again and again. But if you stop and look at the numbers what you’re doing is buying 50 years of electricity up front.”
— Paul Scott

Scott says the perception of solar as expensive stands as the primary explanation.

“People have the idea that solar is very expensive beat into them again and again,” he says. “But if you stop and look at the numbers what you’re doing is buying 50 years of electricity up front.”

In the long run, you will pay much more to your utility for electricity than you will for a solar system, says Scott.

Still, solar system’s big upfront costs scare many people off.

“If you have to put down $20,000 or $30,000 at once, that looks like a lot,” says Scott.

Solar leasing comprises one possible answer to the stumbling block of big upfront costs, says Dubin Scott.

Under a residential solar-leasing model — right now available to a comparatively small number of people in select areas of the country (with the most options in California) — a homeowner puts little to no money down, and pays a monthly bill very close to their current monthly electricity bill.

Additionally, they lock in an electricity rate for a decade or more, notes Dubin Scott.

According to Dubin Scott, when SolarCity first began offering solar leasing in California, it saw a three-fold increase in solar system orders.

Last year’s financial meltdown slowed the rush on solar leasing. However, solar leases are again on the rise as the economy begins to recover.

Future points toward EVs
Ultimately, the future points toward alternatively fueled automobiles, say Scott and Dubin Scott.

And EVs ought to be the leading candidate for a variety of reasons, most notably for their capacity to deliver cleaner air — imagine how different one’s street café experience would be in an EV world, notes Scott.

EVs are also unique in their potential to deliver complete fueling independence.

Toyota RAV4 EV and Zan Dubin Scott to the right.“People get the independence idea,” says Scott. “Even if they can’t get solar right now, when they think about buying a house, they’re thinking of putting solar on it. They love the idea of fueling their car with sunshine.”

Although a big solar advocate, Scott sees the promotion of EVs as the first and most important step toward a greener world.

“The first move is from gasoline to electricity — that helps the economy and national security,” he says. “The next move is making (electricity) green.”

Until the big automakers actually begin to deliver the EVs and PHEVs they’re promising to dealer lots, availability, or really, the unavailability of EVs and PHEVs stands as the biggest impediment to the gasoline-to-electric-to-green driving progression Scott envisions.

EVs will be expensive
However, just because major automakers such as GM, Ford and Nissan will soon be delivering EVs and PHEVs en masse doesn’t mean EVs and PHEVs will take off overnight.

Price, concedes Scott, will also be a barrier to widespread EV/PHEV adoption, at least initially.

“It’s going to start very high,” says Scott. “But it’s been like that with any technology. Whether you’re talking about flying on a plane or buying a cell phone. The cost starts out high and then drops.”

Basic human fear of change also stands to slow the adoption of EVs and PHEVs, although Scott says he isn’t worried about this.

Demand for EVs and PHEVs will far outstrip supply in the beginning, he says, and he’d rather those with range anxiety — or the fear that 100 miles on a charge won’t be enough — and/or misinformation about EVs/PHEVs wait to buy EVs. That way, those who really want EVs and PHEVs will have an easier time getting them.

After the early adopters plug into EVs, others will come along for the EV ride when they realize by watching early adopters of EVs that fears such as range anxiety are unwarranted.

Scott suggests an EV for commuting and a PHEV for long-distance driving for those already living in two-car households.

And for those still not convinced they should buy an EV as their next car, there’s always the lure of low-maintenance costs.

Scott and Dubin Scott have driven their RAV4 EV for seven years and 75,000 miles. And it’s required maintenance exactly once — to replace the shock absorbers.