One household, three solar-charged EVs

summers2-evsNot many households in America boast three electric cars. Fewer still have a home solar system that powers three EVs. In fact, it’s safe to say that households with three solar-charged EVs account for probably less than one-hundredth of one percent of American households. Count the Summers-Scovell household in Santa Monica, Calif. among this select group of groundbreaking households.

Architect and computer programmer Colin Summers and wife Nell Scovell, a script writer, fuel three electric vehicles – a 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV, a 2011 Chevy Volt, and a 2012 BMW ActiveE – primarily via their home solar system.

In fact, they’ve been driving at least one solar-charged vehicle since 2008 when SolarCity installed the 8.4 kW system that acts as a home solar gas station for their impressive stable of EVs.

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Summers remembers what spurred him to consider plugging into solar in 2008: “I saw a SolarCity branded Prius driving through the neighborhood. It said: ‘Put solar on your home, $0 down.’ It sounded too good to be true.”

Solar savings
The EV buff decided to check out SolarCity’s deal to see if was for real. He and his wife ended up leasing an 8.4 kW system from the San Mateo, California-based company.

Despite having three EVs and two teen-aged sons, the 8.4 kW system covers most of the household’s electricity use with monthly bills somewhere between $60 and $80 as opposed to more than $300 prior to the family going solar.

In keeping with statistics that show many people buy solar for economic reasons, the family’s motivation was primarily financial and technological rather than environmental.

“I’m not a huge environmentalist, but I’m a big technologist,” says Summers. “To me, an EV represents a much better technology solution to the transportation needs we have. And, if every new home had solar panels, and these were included in the price of the home, people would be much better off.”

spotlight-colin-summersTo me, an EV represents a much better technology solution to the transportation needs we have.
–Colin Summers

Though it’s actually his wife who’s currently driving the household’s newest pure electric car, the BMW ActiveE, a prototype for the forthcoming BMW Megacity, it was Summers who originally discovered EVs in the mid-1990s.

“I first learned about the [GM] EV1 in 1996,” recalls Summers. “I did a test drive to see what it was like and I just had to have it. But [Nell] said, ‘No one’s driving an EV right now, we’re not going to get one.’ Then she came for a test drive, and, after one three-mile drive down Sunset Boulevard, she said, ‘We have to order one!’ ”

Commuting in an ActiveE
Summers’ wife was similarly impressed by the ActiveE, which has become the car she uses for her daily roundtrip commute of about 40 miles.

The Chevy Volt is Summers’ plug-in. While it isn’t 100 percent electric, Summers, who primarily works from home, has been driving the Volt essentially as if it were a pure electric car.

“The truth is, we go weeks without using any gas at all,” notes the Santa Monica architect, who estimates that he’s used only about 30 gallons of gasoline while covering nearly 10,000 miles in the Volt.

While Summers uses the Volt almost exclusively as an electric car, its extended range comes in handy for the occasional long trip the family takes. For instance, they were able to hop into the Volt for a nearly 100-mile drive to Santa Barbara recently without having to worry about range anxiety.

“That’s when it’s perfect to have the Volt,” says Summers.

volt-big-grayPlug-in hybrids key
Summers strongly believes that plug-in hybrids such as the Volt will be critical to moving America toward pure EVs. In fact, he says he’s managed to persuade three friends to buy or lease a Volt (Summers leases the family’s Volt).

“Until EVs start pushing beyond the 100-mile range barrier, I think for peace of mind a lot of people are going to want to be able to say that they can go a few hundred miles in their car if they really want to,” Summers notes.

On the other hand, says Summers, “a lot of people will start with a Volt, then, when their lease is up, realize they never went more than 80 miles in a day.” These people are likely to lease or buy a pure EV the next time around, he suggests.

While Summers and Scovell ended up buying their first EV, the Toyota RAV4 EV, they opted to lease the Volt, and they have no choice but to lease the ActiveE, as it is a prototype.

Technology changes quickly
Summers cites the quick pace of technological advances as the main reason they opted to lease rather than buy a Volt. In fact, he says he’s hoping to see a Volt in two to three years that offers up to twice as much pure EV range as the current Volt electric range of about 35 miles.

Quick changes and improvements in technology also motivated Summers and Scovell to lease their solar system rather than buy it, he says.

“As an architect, every time I looked at solar I’d see big innovations that come two years after people bought a system,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a good technology to buy because it improves too quickly.”

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before but I’m with Arnold [Schwarzenegger] on this: I think they have to make solar sexier. I think the idea that we’re going to drop your electric bill down to a quarter of what it was with a solar lease is incredibly attractive.

While technology buffs such as Summers have already jumped onto the EV and/or EV + PV bandwagon, or will likely do so soon, some changes need to be made before solar and EVs, and the solar + EV combination, successfully capture the wider public imagination in the U.S., says the Santa Monica architect.

Solar needs to be sexier
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before,” says Summers of the challenges facing solar in the U.S., “but I’m with Arnold [Schwarzenegger] on this: I think they have to make solar sexier. I think the idea that we’re going to drop your electric bill down to a quarter of what it was with a solar lease is incredibly attractive.”

In fact, says Summers, he was able to help persuade his brother-in-law to lease a home solar system, which, Summers notes, he “loves”. However, Summers hasn’t yet convinced his brother-in-law, who has “a bit of a longer commute” to switch to electric driving.

However a bunch of social factors might eventually push Summers’ brother-in-law to plug into to EV driving – and EV + PV – Summers says.

“If there were a few more choices for EVs, he’d probably go electric,” says the long-time EV driver.

More EV choices coming
More choices and more widespread availability of EVs rather than, say, potential growth in the American green movement will be the key factors in the future growth of electric cars in the U.S., predicts Summers.

“Some of it is the environmental thing,” he notes. “People know it’s better for them and the world. But that’s not what gets them. It’s when you get people behind the wheel, that’s what changes people’s minds.”

The comparatively big upfront costs of EVs and solar are also potential barriers for some, though Summers notes there are plenty of people for whom EVs are clearly affordable but who have not yet opted to buy one with the same being true of solar.

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Zippy EVs
“I think part of it is the marketing has to go more to things people care about in the short term,” he says. “Things like performance, zippy-ness, I’ve chopped my electric bill in half, etc.”

In fact, young people, who surveys have shown are more interested in hybrids than the general public, might turn out to be the key in terms of the future of plug-in vehicles and EV + PV as well.

The family’s 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV, which has about 80,000 miles on it, may end up going to the couple’s oldest son, who will soon be getting his driver’s license. If that happens, he may be part of a new generation of drivers that not only drives electric but drives on home-produced sunshine as well.

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