Traffic jam cars
Transportation accounts for about 27% of all energy used in the U.S., and most of the gasoline. Yuck!

Long distances between our communities in ME and NH is a big part of what makes our two states among the most oil dependent in the nation.

The good news is that the electric cars just coming to market will enable northern New Englanders to eliminate their consumption of gasoline and the associated emissions.

Hybrid vehicles are already helping reduce fuel consumption, and totally electric vehicles (EV) will be on our roads in the coming months. And when a vehicle is powered by electricity, it means it can be powered using electricity provided by the sun!

Turning Over a New LEAF

In 2011 the very first Nissan LEAF vehicles will hit the market, and while it appears it will be a little while before a full fledged rollout in Maine and New Hampshire, these cars promise the first chance for a truly net-zero driving experience.

Nissan LEAF Electric Vehicle
The all electric Nissan LEAF will run on all electric and drive for up to 100 miles on a single charge.

The LEAF is a 100% EV, with no gasoline engine (or tailpipe!) at all. Its 24kWh battery pack boasts a driving range of up to 100 miles on a charge, though many claim that 60-80 miles is a more realistic range.

Each “fill up” will cost around $4 (based on a delivered electric rate of $0.16/kWh). For a household driving around 15,000 miles a year, a conservative estimate of fuel cost is around $750 of electricity each year, vs. over $2,700/yr of gasoline in a typical 22mpg vehicle!

3.6 kw Solar Array = Fossil-free LEAF

With solar electricity you can offset some or all of the LEAF’s energy use. One kilowatt of solar panels will generate roughly 1,300 kWh/year in Maine or New Hampshire. A home with a fairly heavy driving load of 15,000 miles/year can therefore completely offset their transportation load with a 3.6kw solar electric system.

The costs look something like this:

$18,000 gross installed cost
-($5,400) federal tax credit
-($2,000) state rebate
$10,600 net investment

Estimated power production over 20 years: 93,600 kWh
Locked-in rate per kWh: .11c/kWh
Yearly energy cost for LEAF, with conventional power: $750
Yearly energy cost for LEAF, with solar electric: $516
Yearly fossil fuel emissions for LEAF, with conventional power: 5,200lbs.
Yearly fossil fuel emissions for LEAF, with solar electric: 0

And of course, if you drive less, any excess power will go against your regular electric bill!

That’s the beauty of grid-tied photovoltaic electricity – even if you are not home to use your solar power, you’re still getting credits for that power when it’s sold to the grid.  So even if you charge your EV at night, you’ll be using your own solar credits to refuel the car.

The Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt Electric Car
Dubbed the “electric vehicle that goes further,” the Chevy Volt will seamlessly transition to a gasoline backup engine when the built-in battery is exhausted.

The Chevy Volt is Detroit’s take on the electric vehicle, combining a 16kWh battery with an estimated range of 35 miles (93 MPGe according to the EPA) and a range-extending gasoline generator for longer drives that nets around 37MPG.

The gas backup is to combat “range anxiety,” the motorist fear that they might be left stranded if they run out of juice while nowhere near an EV refueling station.

A Washington Post reviewer summed it up well:

What makes the Volt the Darling of Detroit is that it has been reverse-engineered to match the perverse American psyche. Americans hate buying gas but love to drive. We definitely want to stick it to the sheikhs, and in the process maybe save the planet, so we want cars that run on sunshine, twigs and happy thoughts. But these cars also have to kick some ass. And be able to make an impulsive 90-mile run to Philly when we suddenly have a hankering for cheese steak. And we don’t want to worry about hunting for twig refueling stations along the way.

All of that is what the Volt is theoretically designed to deliver.

The Volt’s electric MPG is fairly close to the Nissan LEAF (92MPGe and 99 MPGe respectively), though its all-electric range is less than half.  However, for the commuter who drives less than 35 miles a day (or can refuel at work), the possibility for an all PV-powered car is just as viable for a Volt owner as the owner of the all electric LEAF.

What About the Battery Charging Infrastructure?

How to refuel your electric car is one of the most talked-about and interesting areas of the dawn of the EV.

Solar Carport
A parking lot structure with solar panels in California

While the cars can be refueled with a conventional 110AC power socket, it is much more efficient to charge them with a special “Level 2 Chargers.”  These 240V, 40a chargers will charge the LEAF in around 6 hours and cost the homeowner around $2,000, assuming their home can support an additional 40a service dedicated to charging the car.

On the horizon are commercial-grade rapid car chargers which aim to reduce the charge time to under an hour… maybe as little as three minutes! Also exciting are solar carports, which offer solar-powered electric vehicle charging for anyone who cares to visit it.

A Solar Road Ahead

EVs are obviously in their infancy, but with high gas prices a lasting reality and the environmental and geopolitical impacts of oil dependency being felt more than ever before, the push towards a more renewable transportation sector is inevitable.

Though nothing can beat biking, walking, or sailing to work, an EV powered by the clean energy of the sun is a pretty great option! Look for more from us as we follow the evolution of this exciting technology.

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