New Jersey’s newest solar-charged driver


sun-miler-spotlight3Phil Blackwood had been celebrating solar from afar for years.

On the drive home from work, he’d eye homes with solar and wish he had a sleek, shiny PV array for his Lincroft, New Jersey home.

However, while many solar gawkers jealously eye others’ home solar systems from inside a gasoline-powered car, for the past year or so Blackwood wasn’t driving past local PV systems in an average vehicle. He was zipping by in a car that can actually run on the energy produced by a home solar array – a MINI E, an electric prototype version of BMW’s MINI.

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Today, Blackwood doesn’t have to go far to view a striking home solar system or to plug his car into the sun. That’s because the AT&T enterprise architect recently celebrated solar by having a 9.4 kW solar system installed on his home. Now, he can just step outside his house to celebrate the sight of a gleaming new solar array. Plus, he can pop into his garage to plug his EV directly into the clean, green energy produced by the sun.

Celebrating solar with local celebrities
A lifelong fan of solar, Blackwood celebrated going solar in a big way, throwing a bash in early August that attracted more than 100 co-workers, friends, neighbors and even a few local celebrities, among them Blackwood’s U.S. Congressional Representative Rush Holt.

“I like to have a big party once a year,” says Blackwood, who sent out invitations to his going solar gig to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and nearby neighbor Bruce Springsteen, among others. “And I thought, ‘I’ll just use going solar as the reason’. The other part of it is that I think that going solar is worth celebrating.”

The (going solar) party is based on the same idea as the old barn raising. When someone makes an important step that benefits the community, you have a big celebration.
–Phil Blackwood, New Jersey solar-charged MINI E driver

Chu, whom Blackwood met personally at this year’s White House Earth Day celebration, wasn’t able to come. And Bruce Springsteen didn’t show up.

blackwood-solar-systemBut Blackwood, who’s been involved in New Jersey and national politics for several years, did manage to get his going solar party on the radar screen of some pretty important people. For instance, folks at the White House, who picked up Blackwood’s going solar story and projected it onto the national stage via the Obama Administration’s Organizing for America (OFA) blog.

“It’s amazing the amount of interest I got,” says Blackwood

In addition to a deep concern about global warming, personal experience pushed Blackwood to press the flesh on behalf of solar in his New Jersey front yard.

In fact, talking to people who had already gone solar themselves was what finally pushed Blackwood himself to go solar. This helped Blackwood see that in contrast to the stereotype of solar as being ‘too expensive’, going solar makes homeowners money – at least in New Jersey, thanks to the state’s burgeoning Solar Renewable Energy Credits program.

“I’d never seriously considered putting up solar until I talked to people who had it,” Blackwood explains. “I bet lot of people would be curious about it. The party was a way to encourage others to learn about it and to improve the way they are producing electricity.”

Dangerous addiction to fossil fuels
Blackwood has been focused on the way modern society produces electricity, still primarily from coal, and the way it powers its transportation fleet, almost exclusively with oil, for quite awhile. And he, like many others, doesn’t like what he’s seeing. In fact, he’s pretty sure that what’s coming as a result of humankind’s 100-plus year addiction to fossil fuels is going to be pretty severe.


“We’ve already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere to disrupt the climate. Even if we get real busy right away, it’s going to be very disruptive,” says Blackwood, who’s read a number of books by global warming gurus such as James E. Hansen, Bill McKibben, and David Orr.

Blackwood concedes he can tend toward pessimism about what kind of world his two children, and, especially, their children, might grow up in. Taking individual action – by going solar, by driving an electric vehicle, and by plugging that vehicle into clean, solar produced electricity – is, he explains, a way to transform his frustration with the status quo into positive, productive change.

“That stuff keeps me awake at night,” Blackwood says of the sobering analysis offered by McKibben and others. “We gotta do stuff to turn it around. “

End is Near?
His own individual decision to plug into solar-charged driving is one way to turn things around. However, individual action is not enough for Blackwood.

“You could run around with a sign that the end is near, but it’s not going to influence many people,” says Blackwood. “The (going solar) party is based on the same idea as the old barn raising. When someone makes an important step that benefits the community, you have a big celebration.”

A communal celebration of an individual going solar helps neighbors, friends, work colleagues and, yes, even national politicians, see that not only can going solar can be done but that it makes sense environmentally and economically.

blackwood-party-goersSolar is primary focus
While some current solar-charged drivers say their electric car inspired them to go solar, Blackwood says he would have gone solar with or without the electric car.

“It’s a combination, of, ‘Hey, isn’t this [PV] a cool technology?’ – you can put it out in the sun and it creates electricity — and a concern for the environment, particularly for the climate,” says Blackwood of his lifelong interest in solar energy.

Two things kept him from going solar earlier, Blackwood explains. First, the standard stumbling block of the upfront costs of solar. Second, a giant oak tree which was casting a large shadow over the prime solar spot on the Blackwood family home.

Big tree axed to make way for solar
Talking to people who already had solar, who were clearly seeing an excellent return on investment and who were going to save money in the long run, helped Blackwood leap the first hurdle. Coming to terms with having to chop down the majestic oak in order to make way for a 9.4 kW solar system cleared the way for this lifelong fan of solar to plug into PV – and EV+PV – himself.

There’s a lot of chatter about range anxiety. For me, in a two-car family and with a short commute, it really hasn’t caused any issues. It’s been really easy to live with.
–Phil Blackwood, New Jersey solar-charged MINI E driver

Factual data which showed that his family’s 9.4 kW solar system would, across its lifetime, crank out enough clean electricity to offset the planting of nearly 1,000 trees, plus the fact that the hulking oak was approaching the end of its healthy lifetime were enough to put Blackwood on the path to finally getting solar himself.

“I took a serious look at solar financially, and it looked pretty good,” says Blackwood. “Between that and the fact that the tree had to go anyway, we decided to launch the project.”

Sun Ray Solar, of Lakewood, New Jersey installed the system in early May. Since then, it’s been pumping out an average of 38 kWh of electricity per day, or enough to cover most, but not all, of the Blackwood household’s electricity consumption, including, of course, lots and lots of miles in an emissions free MINI E.

blackwood-obama-blogHappy with the MINI E
Blackwood says he loves the MINI E, which he’s been leasing for about a year and a half.

“It’s fun to drive,” he says. “It’s very quick and nimble and responsive – and the electric motor has a lot of torque.”

In fact, it has enough pep – and then some – to impress anyone who rides in it. Blackwood’s happy to give just about any interested party a spin in the MINI E in order to change their minds about the stereotype almost all of them have – the stereotype of an electric car as S-L-O-W.

“I like taking people for rides,” says Blackwood. “They’re always impressed by the acceleration. Typically, after they’ve ridden in it, they see that it’s possible and real, and often they ask, why aren’t we (society) doing more of this?”

Frequently, those lucky enough to hitch a ride in Blackwood’s zippy MINI E also leave the car trying to crunch the numbers for themselves. “They’re thinking, ‘Can I make this work for me?’, ” explains Blackwood.

Some of them conclude that the range — somewhere between 70 and 120 miles, depending on weather conditions, types of driving (highway driving drains the battery more quickly than city driving), and, last, but not least, personal driving style – wouldn’t be enough for them.

No range anxiety here
But it’s more than enough for Blackwood – and tens of millions of other American households with two cars plus at least one, if not, two commutes well under 100 miles round trip, and in which, at most, no more than a handful of roundtrips over 100 miles are made per month.

“There’s a lot of chatter about range anxiety,” concedes Blackwood, who cites this fear as the number one thing standing between EVs and their ability to go mainstream. “For me, in a two-car family and with a short commute, it really hasn’t caused any issues. It’s been really easy to live with.”

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It’s the combination of sheer convenience – Blackwood, like many EV-ers, likes to joke that it takes him five seconds to fill up his MINI E, meaning the time it takes him to plug it into an outlet – long-term economic savings, and the radically positive impact replacing a gasoline powered car with a solar-charged EV can have on the environment that make the electric car + solar synergy so easy for Blackwood to live with.

He hopes his own EV+PV experience will inspire others to follow suit.

“A big part of it is, I think, seeing an example,” says Blackwood. “A lot of times, people can see or hear about it (in the media) and then they carry it around in their heads without doing it. But when they actually see it in person, that’s a stimulus that moves the idea from the back of the mind to the front of the mind – and then maybe people actually start doing it.”


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