Back in the dinosaur age when newspaper stories were still written on typewriters, I did a story on a nascent technology no one had ever heard of called cellular telephones. I still remember the feeling of wonderment from the glimpse offered by the story into a future in which telephones did not require landlines.
Recently I had the same feeling when I visited a neighbor named Tom who drives an all-electric Mini Cooper prototype called the Mini E made by BMW. The car is one of 612 being tested worldwide and one of only a handful in the New York metro area. Unlike plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) such as the Chevy Volt, which use both electricity and gas, Tom’s car is all electric. Every night he plugs it into a charging station in his garage. Tom, who takes great delight in the fact that his driving supports no petro-dictators or promotes no foreign wars, points out that 70 cents of every dollar spent on oil leaves the U.S. economy. His license plate reads “EF-OPEC.”
Ah, the skeptics might say, but is an electric car all that green when the electricity that powers it comes from coal, gas or nuclear power plants? But there they would be wrong. The roof of Tom’s colonial in suburban New Jersey is covered with 39 solar panels that generate approximately 10 megawatt-hours of electricity annually. His slogan is “Fill ’er up with sunshine.” Tom is one of the first in the country to charge an all-electric car from a residential rooftop solar system. And, he points out proudly, while other New Jersey homeowners with solar systems are offsetting electricity rates of approximately $0.18 per kilowatt-hour — savings that are impressive enough on their own — his are considerably higher.
In addition to saving on his household electricity expenses, Tom is also saving on gasoline expenses — to the tune of more than $5,000 per year. Every 6 kilowatt-hours of electricity used by Tom’s Mini E equals about a gallon of gas for the average passenger car in the United States, which now carries a value approaching four dollars. So he is saving four dollars in avoided gas expenses for every 6 kilowatt-hours his system generates, compared to a savings of $1.08 (6 x $0.18) in avoided household electricity costs. And with gas and electricity prices on the increase, these savings can only be expected to increase. “The last time I checked with the sun, he said he didn’t plan on raising his price for sunshine … so I think I’m good there,” he says on his blog.
Nor do the savings stop there. Tom is also taking advantage of generous state incentives whose goal is to promote the generation of electricity from renewable sources. In addition to the savings in avoided household electricity costs and the offset in gas consumption, Tom also receives an annual payment of about $6,500 for the sale of the Solar Energy Renewable Certificates (SRECs) generated by his solar system, an incentive representing the environmental benefit of solar. The savings from his solar system thus cover a significant share of his mortgage. “What other house do you know of that generates money?” he asks.
Tom will have to surrender his Mini E prototype in October, but BMW will replace it with another test model called the ActiveE. And, when BMW introduces its all-electric BMWi3 in 2013, which is the model that the pilot programs he’s enrolled in are gathering information for, he will be the first in line to buy one.
As for the future, researchers are developing prototypes for “solar forests” (also called “solar groves” or “solar carports”), which are solar-shaded parking lots that charge parked electric cars while keeping them cool. They are also developing self-charging electric cars with solar panels on their rooftops and solar “roads” that charge electric cars traveling over a surface made up of solar panels.
Although these technological wonders are still a long way off, one thing is certain: the solar/electric car interface will some day be as ubiquitous as that once-futuristic cell phone technology.
Check out Tom’s blog at minie250.blogspot.com