Why solar is an electric car game-changer


editors-blog-entry3I have a confession to make: I wouldn’t be all that charged up about plug-in cars without the solar-EV/PHEV connection.

Don’t get me wrong, the more I’ve learned about EVs and PHEVs since I jumped on the solar-EV/PHEV bandwagon a little over six months ago, the more clear it has become to me that converting America’s – and the world’s – auto fleet to electricity is crucial, even if does mean that a good portion of this electricity will be powered mostly (hopefully, temporarily) by non-renewable sources such as coal.

Still, if I wasn’t able to power our future EV with solar on our home, I wouldn’t be buying an electric car anytime soon.

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I’d be waiting for EVs: a) to come down in price; b) to show that they’re durable; c) to offer increased range.

In other words, without the solar-EV connection, I’d pretty much be like most car consumers in America and much of the rest of the world: mostly uninterested in, or only mildly interested in, plug-in vehicles.

I think there are a lot of other people out there like me who are likely to leap onto the plug-in vehicle express for one reason, and one reason only: Because doing so will allow them to power a car partially, or fully via a home solar system – or in some cases, a home wind turbine.

Blinded by my own environmentalism?
In doing a series of interviews with veteran plug-in vehicle advocates recently, it’s become apparent to me that perhaps I am:

a) anomalous; b) naïve; c) blinded by my own desire to make a meaningful environmental difference on an individual level; d) all the above.

This for believing that there are millions of people like me in the U.S., and around the world, meaning people for whom the primary motivation for getting an EV/PHEV is the fact that they will be able to:

a) power it themselves; b) achieve something approaching near total fueling independence; c) realize essentially pollution-free driving; d) stick it to Big Oil; e) feel good about living, and promoting, green living in a big way.

chelsea-sexton-volt-smallSo, for instance, Darell Dickey, founder of EVNut.com, and a long-time EV advocate, who’s also solar-charged his EV for seven years, told me in an interview that his experience – and Darell knows a lot of current owners of so-called production type EVs — has shown that most current EV-ers who are now solar-charging buy the electric car first then later decide to power it with solar.

In other words, it would seem that solar, and zero pollution/fueling independence are not, initially, the primary motivation for many of the EV-ers Dickey knows – though, of course, Dickey does estimate that 50-percent of those he does know, fully, or partially, charge their EVs with electricity generated by a home solar system.

Similarly, long-time plug-in vehicle advocate Chelsea Sexton, who graciously agreed to be interviewed by SolarChargedDriving.Com, and who put together a series of thought-provoking answers to questions I posed to her, also appears to think that, for most people, the desire to drive a car powered by electricity generated by solar panels on their home will not be their primary motivation to make the switch to electric driving.

What will motivate people to buy EVs/PHEVs?
So, for instance, Sexton states in her interview with SolarChargedDriving.Com that, “Most EVs have not been leased/purchased out of environmental considerations as the primary factor.”

Certainly, as a former GM EV1 sales-person Sexton has her hand on the pulse of prospective plug-in auto buyers much more than I can claim to.

Sexton also appears to be rather anxious about the message that all electric vehicles must be 100-percent renewable energy charged, or they’re not a worthwhile personal, or societal, investment. In another section of her interview with SolarChargedDriving.Com, Sexton notes the following:

“I’ve seen way too much of the message that plug-in cars aren’t beneficial if you don’t use solar energy to charge it; that charging off the grid isn’t ‘good enough.’ That backfires for both sides, because it feeds the idea that if someone can’t do everything, he shouldn’t do anything at all. Consumers need to understand that each technology stands on its own merits and that starting with either is a good thing. Usually, they’ll continue once they’re on the path, so I find encouraging people to start where they can to be more effective.”

As if to prove Sexton right, just two days after we published her interview on SolarChargedDriving.Com, a coalition of European environmental groups published a somewhat ominous — some might even say shrill — study which calls upon the EU to ensure that a plug-in vehicle revolution in Europe occurs concurrently with a renewable energy revolution.

Personally, I think it’s better to err on the side of emphasizing the plug-in/renewable energy mix “too much,” while also taking care to ensure that this mix not be used as the sole measurement of whether plug-ins are a worthwhile personal and societal investment.

So for example, one of the green activists quoted in the press release on the report, Greenpeace EU Transport Policy Advisor Franziska Achterberg, says the following: “Dumb electric vehicles plugged into a dumb electricity grid would only add demand for coal and nuclear power and drive us away from a sustainable energy future.”

Does too much environmentalism ‘backfire’?
I suspect this is precisely the sort thing that Sexton would say “backfires” in terms of environmental advocacy, because it seems to fuel the idea that either we charge plug-ins completely with renewable energy — or pretty damn close to completely — or we abandon them altogether.

I generally agree with Sexton that too shrill an environmental message isn’t an especially effective method to promote a more sustainable approach to our modern society, which is so desperately tied to the automobile. (By the way, I, like Sexton, advocate walking and biking before driving a vehicle of any kind).

promote-power-of-sun3However, I also agree with Friends of Earth Europe, Greenpeace and Transport & Environment that we had better be careful about what we are plugging our plug-ins into.

I don’t want more coal or more nuclear power.

In fact, as many EV advocates, including Sexton, rightly point out, at least in the U.S., the rise of plug-ins will not require building more coal plants, etc. Of course, simply because it doesn’t require this, doesn’t mean that some players – the coal lobby, for instance – won’t use the rise of plug-ins to argue for more coal. Indeed, it seems virtually guaranteed to me that the coal – and nuclear – lobbys will do this.

I don’t quite agree with Sexton on another, more implicit point, I think she is making (perhaps not even deliberately, or consciously).

I think Sexton – and here I have a strong suspicion her views are quite similar to those of many other plug-in advocates – is extremely anxious, too anxious, in my view, about the possibility that linking plug-ins too explicitly to renewable energy will turn off large numbers of potential electric car purchasers many of whom will decide that it’s an either/or proposition: Either they have a home solar system that they can use to power their electric car, or they won’t buy a plug-in.

Solar seals the electric car deal for me
Admittedly, it’s a bit ironic of me to make this observation given that I am exactly one of these people. I would not be contemplating buying an electric car right now unless I knew we could power it completely (or pretty close to completely) via a home solar system.

But here is where I differ with Sexton: I think there are many, many people – millions – who will only get onto the electric car express if the cars are linked explicitly and consistently to renewable energy, and, more specifically, if they are made aware of the possibility that millions of people around the world, including themselves, potentially, can power those cars partially, or fully, by renewable energy they themselves generate.

I think there are far more people out there like me — meaning people who will get really, really fired up about plug-ins when they realize they can power a plug-in with home-based solar — than Sexton appears to think.

Obviously, there is a tension here.

On the one hand, there is the danger that if you “overdo” the plug-in-renewable energy mix, that it might turn people off to EVs. This either because: a) they’re Right wingers and they don’t want to hear the “enviro” talk; b) they are greenies but they won’t be able to power their EVs with home-generated renewable energy and who, because they can’t do this, in Sexton’s view, apparently would rather pass on buying a plug-in than plugging into a “lump of coal.”

On the other hand, there is the danger that if you don’t play up the plug-in/renewable energy mix enough that you will lose many of the greenies who will only buy an electric car if they can plug it directly into renewable energy.

What’s the answer? It depends on who you are, and what your take on the whole plug-in/renewable energy equation is.

codaEither/or logic not effective
Personally, I think it’s better to err on the side of emphasizing the plug-in/renewable energy mix “too much,” while also taking care to ensure that this mix not be used as the sole measurement of whether plug-ins are a worthwhile personal and societal investment.

One might even say this is exactly what Sexton is trying to do when she states that she “finds encouraging people to start where they can”, either with solar or an electric car, to be “more effective” than insisting that the two definitely be married to one another — or else!

I agree with Sexton on this.

Where I think we diverge a bit is, on how much to foreground renewable energy in terms of the plug-in equation, and, more significantly, in terms of our hunches about what the primary motivation will be for early adopters of plug-in vehicles.

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I think there are far more people out there like me — meaning people who will get really, really fired up about plug-ins when they realize they can power a plug-in with home-based solar — than Sexton appears to think.

Indeed, I’m so convinced there are many, many people like me, I’ve created a web site for them.

Of course, right now, many of these people might not yet know they have the potential to be fired up about the solar/plug-in synergy, or, as it is often referred to, the PV-EV mix.

That’s because, as Sexton correctly points out in her interview with SolarChargedDriving.Com, few people know about plug-ins, much less about the fact that many of us – especially many of those of us among the tens of millions of us who live in the sun-baked American West and Southwest – can charge an EV/PHEV with home-generated sun power.

In the end, spreading this message is the whole idea behind SolarChargedDriving.Com.

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