Solar-charged EV revolution stuck in first gear

auker-ev-pv-smalleditors-blog-entry3What if you held a party for electric cars and no one came?

That’s what happened to us last week when we hosted a ‘Revenge of the Electric Car’ party as part of a nationwide event sponsored by the Sierra Club.

While I’m sure there were quite a few Sierra Club sponsored in-home screenings of Chris Paine’s documentary Revenge of the Electric Car that drew well, only one person signed up for ours – and she didn’t show. Actually, I can’t blame her. If I’d seen I was the only one signed up for another ‘Revenge’ party, I wouldn’t have shown either.

The night before our ‘Revenge’ party, I surfed around the Sierra Club’s interactive sign-up page for other ‘Revenge’ parties and there were a lot for which no one had signed up.

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EV adoption in U.S. slow
This isn’t meant as a critique of Sierra Club, or its efforts in promoting electric cars. It’s just that our unsuccessful ‘Revenge’ party got me to thinking about the larger question of electric car adoption in the U.S. as well as how quickly people in the U.S. will plug not only into EVs, but into solar-charged driving.

Looking back at the excitement I felt when I first discovered that there was such a thing as solar-charged driving almost three years ago, I can see now that my enthusiasm was a bit over the top. Well, okay, A LOT over the top.

In fact, I believed that lots and lots of people would be as excited as I was. How could they not be? After all, what else combines green, clean auto fueling with the satisfaction of fueling independence and long-term savings in the way EV + PV does?

This has got to have a lot of appeal, I thought, especially because America, and Americans, love individual independence, fueling, and otherwise.

camaro-on-panels1Faded optimism
So far, it looks like my view of the future for EVs and for EV + PV was way too optimistic.

Yes, Nissan sold more than 20,000 all-electric LEAFs worldwide last year, and, in the U.S. we’re somewhere around 15,000 or so LEAFs and Volts sold in the past 16 months. That’s good news. Indeed, as many informed EV advocates point out, the LEAF posted better sales numbers in its first year than the Toyota Prius did in its first year.

And solar continues to grow at a fast clip in the U.S., at least in hot spots such as California, New Jersey, and Arizona, to name a few.

Still, this ain’t no revolution. People aren’t bolting from gasoline to electric cars in large numbers. Indeed, what we’re seeing is more of a trickle than a rush.

Why no revolution? How could I have been so wrong on the enthusiasm I brought to EV + PV back in the Summer of 2009?

Two main reasons: Cost and competition.

leaf-volt-solar1LEAF $20k more than Versa
It’s probably pretty clear what I mean by cost: Even with tax incentives electric cars such as the Nissan LEAF, Ford Focus Electric, and Chevy Volt are simply too expensive. Most people aren’t able or willing to fork over around $40,000 – and that’s what you need to do while you wait for up to a year for your tax credits to materialize.

Yes, most people, in particular those who have home solar, will realize long-term savings with an EV. But just as large upfront costs have dogged home solar for seemingly forever, the same can be said about electric vehicles. It’s the upfront that’s the deal breaker.

While solar costs have come down substantially, they’re still too high for most Americans – you’re looking at at least $8,000 pre-tax incentives for any system big enough to power an EV annually. In addition, as I’ve pointed out before, most people have never thought about their electric bill as something they pay forward 20 years, and they never will.

That brings us to leasing. Yes, in theory, leasing might bring a Nissan LEAF or Chevy Volt closer to affordability for some. But the truth is you still need to come up with around $3,000 in cash and, when you add in taxes and other costs, you’re looking at a monthly lease payment of more than $400 (folks with actual, total out-of-pocket monthly lease costs of less than $400 for a LEAF or Volt had to have put extra money down up front). For large numbers of Americans, that’s a lot of money they don’t have right now, and probably never will have.

solar-lease-green-panelSolar leasing
Solar leasing is a slightly different story as it’s possible to end up paying little to no money down (if you’ve got glittering credit scores) and have essentially the same electric bill you’re paying now.

Of course, solar leasing is only available in select areas of 14 states right now, or, differently put, at best, solar leasing might be available to at most 25 percent of American homeowners.

So, will the EV and EV + PV revolution ever unfold?

I’m not so sure anymore, largely due to the second part of the non-revolution formulation I proposed above: Competition.

Plug-ins can’t compete
Right now, plug-ins, in particular pure EVs, can’t compete with gasoline cars.

Look at the price difference between a Nissan Versa and a Nissan LEAF — close to $20,000 give or take a few grand depending on state EV incentives where you live, or the fact that you can get a Cadillac for the same price as a Chevy Volt — and you get the picture. Add the fact that a Nissan Versa has no range limitations, and the picture becomes even clearer.

Until pure EVs offer more range for a lot less money and/or until gasoline reaches something like $8 per gallon in the U.S. – something I’m guessing won’t happen for at least another five to 10 years – EVs are going to be at a clear disadvantage vis-à-vis gasoline cars.

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And until home solar becomes easier to do – perhaps when we see 100 percent availability of solar leasing or PACE, or some similar financing mechanism for home solar that allows people to skip the big upfront payment – and/or electricity prices spike sharply in the American heartland, home solar isn’t going to achieve revolutionary status in the U.S.

Yes, the early adopters will continue to be enthusiastic about EVs and EV + PV – up to 50 percent and probably a minimum of 15 percent of EV buyers have home solar or install it shortly after buying an EV. But there simply aren’t enough of them to transform EV + PV into a nationwide revolution.

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