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Solar panel your garage, not your car, experts say

by Erin M. Massey
July 16, 2012


Retrofit

Charlie Garlow

Bob Bruninga of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington D.C. retrofitted two PHEV Prius electric cars with solar panels.

Cars retrofitted with solar panels might extend the gas-free drive of an electric car but a solar retrofit for your garage can mean free electric power to fully charge the car battery in the first place.  
    
“Free” can require an initial investment of $22,644 for a two-car solar garage port. But consider the payback. The price tag is the equivalent to about 404 fill-ups of gas, or 3 years of fills at two a week costing $4 a gallon for an average 14-gallon gas tank.

The investment makes sense to a growing number of drivers as the demand for alternative vehicles increases, individuals and companies are trying almost anything to save on gas, emissions linked to climate change and energy costs.

Jerry Asher of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington D.C. (EVA/DC) said he is one of the many believers in living a green lifestyle.  

Asher has taken several trips in alternative vehicles across the country in 2008, 2009, 2011, and is planning yet another trip this year.  

In 2008, Asher drove through all 48 state capitals in the EVA/DC’s PHEV Toyota Prius known as the Spirit of D.C. For all trips, Asher has driven a different vehicle to make a statement about alternative energy, rally support and advocate for electric vehicles.

With increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the environment, it is no wonder the Midwest has flooded so badly in past years and the country is sweltering, Asher said. Scientists warn that the earth is warming faster than previously thought. 

“Welcome to your future. Quite a pickle we have left,” Asher said, adding that we really need to be astute in the choice of energy we use.

As car companies such as Audi and other car manufacturers begin making cars with built-in solar panels to store energy as the car drives on a sunny day, Asher suggests another alternative. 

Retrofitting a garage with solar panels or having a solar carport installed in the driveway to capture energy while the car is not even present underneath is the new big idea.

Carports, although pricey, can be ordered “as big as you want,” custom designed to the size of a Costco parking lot, said Clay Reid, a technician at Solarhome.com, based in Victorville, Calif.

“Depending on the time they [people] need their cars, the car can sit for 20 hours a day and charge overnight,” Asher said.

The solar panels would store energy during the day, enabling the car to be used for commuter purposes during these hours and then would charge overnight while the owner is sleeping.

As an added benefit, electricity rates drop at night. Rates vary by state and company, but ComEd charges up to 13 cents per kilowatt-hour during the day and as little as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour at night. 

Retrofitting a car with solar panels or purchasing a car with panels already built in poses two challenges. One is the actual amount of energy the car is able to store throughout the day and the second is the price related to the type of panel.

John Walton, a contractor for Trillium CNG, said that solar panels on a car only add a small additional voltage to the overall charge of a battery.  

An electric car lithium-ion battery, such as the one in the Nissan Leaf, can take anywhere from 6-8 hours to recharge. If a car takes 10-12 hours to charge at 110 volts, it would take half that amount of time with a 240-volt plug.

With a battery fully charged, an electric car has limited range. Currently, most electric cars can drive up to 40 miles on a lead acid battery, with a lithium-ion battery in the Nissan Leaf providing a range of about 100 miles on full charge.

Tesla Motors recently released a full-sized electric sedan advertised at having a range of almost 300 miles per full charge, truly a “claim to fame” in Walton’s opinion. A 85-kilowatt-hour automotive grade lithium-ion battery allows the breakthrough results.

“It was meant to be out last year,” said Walton, who also serves as the vice-chair for the Chicago Area Clean Cities coalition. “If they can pull this off, it would be an amazing thing.”

The second option to consider when retrofitting a car with solar panels is the type of panel: curvy or flat.  Curvy would match the natural curvature of the car’s roof, whereas the flat solar panels would stick out in a similar way to ones used on the roof of a house or garage.  

“It wouldn’t look as slick or cool as the Audi does, but [the flat panels] would get more energy and be less expensive,” said Charlie Garlow, president of the Electric Vehicle Association based in Washington, D.C.
 
Garlow intends to retrofit his trailer in the near future with flat solar panels and pull it behind his motorcycle on longer trips in order to store as much solar energy as possible.

The maximum benefit of energy a car with solar panels can obtain from a sunny day would be about one mile per sunny hour, said Garlow, which is why he pulls a small power plant of a trailer that amounts to solar panels on wheels.

Assuming an average of 3.2 hours a day of sunlight over the course of the year in Chicago, the solar panels on the roof of a car would generate only enough energy to power about four extra miles of travel per day, said Ted Lowe of the Fox Valley Electric Auto Association in Wheaton.

Coinciding with the issue of how or where to place solar panels on a vehicle comes the issue of fueling stations. Charging stations are not nearly as popular or accessible as gas stations, leading to another reason some buyers are hesitant to invest in an electric car.

Currently, there are only 26 charging stations in the Chicago area, including commercial locations such as Walgreens and Whole Foods.  

Samantha Bingham, environmental policy analyst for the City of Chicago said that, for the times, this is actually pretty impressive. Bingham, volunteer coordinator for the Chicago Area Clean Cities coalition, said California plans to install 100 fast charging stations across the state in the next year or so.

What are some incentives to buy an electric vehicle if you live in Illinois?

The state is offering buyers of Level 2 charging stations a rebate of up to $4,000, which can offset the cost of the station and installation by half.  All individuals or companies are eligible to apply excluding nonprofit organizations. The federal government offers an income tax credit of up to $7,500 for those purchasing electric vehicles.

As electric car companies produce vehicles to meet the growing demand for alternative energy, for many, the cons of electric cars still outweigh the pros.  

“People focus on the wrong things. People focus on their iPod color, which is not as important as ‘how are we going to survive,’ " said Lowe. “Right now is the issue of range, how far can you drive on a charge, and the initial cost of the cars are not cheap. You can buy a Prius for mid to upper teens, but the cheapest electric cars are in the $30,000 range.”

But to electric-car enthusiasts, the pros outweigh the cons because they extend beyond aesthetics and technicalities. Technicalities can be dealt with, whereas the future of the earth in terms of climate change and its impacts should not have to be.

“The most significant thing that would happen if I had my choice would be a battery break through,” Lowe said. “It would bring the range of an electric car up to the range of a gasoline car with the same availability to recharge. That would be a game changer.”