Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Alternative to Record High Gasoline Prices

At a time when many of us are contemplating vacations and weekend outings, we’re now experiencing the highest gasoline rates ever. Instead of accepting things as they are, why not make a resolution to do something about it. It won’t be easy, or inexpensive, but you can do something that will improve the quality of your life for the rest of your life. The first step is to come up with a plan.

To deal with the ever-increasing cost of gasoline you have two choices; use less gas, or don’t use any gas. A more fuel efficient car, perhaps a hybrid, is an option you’ve probably considered, but have you ever thought about eliminating the use of gas entirely? As impractical as that might sound, it is possible, and you can do it without trading your car for a bicycle. You can do it with (drum roll)….. a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV, is powered by an electric motor. When its batteries are depleted, a small gasoline motor takes over. Since the vehicle’s batteries are recharged by plugging into an AC outlet, you may not need to use the gasoline motor at all. It has been estimated that the cost of electricity to recharge the car is the same as replacing one gallon of gasoline with one dollar’s worth of electricity. But it gets even better than that. If you have the ability to generate your own electricity, perhaps with solar panels or wind energy, your fuel costs can be totally eliminated! Imagine, instead of purchasing gasoline, you could be driving on free power from the sun!

While electric cars of the 1990’s had serious limitations, advances in battery technology are the driving force that will soon result in practical PHEV’s. The best currently available batteries are lighter, last longer, and can be charged more quickly. PHEV’s with the new lithium ion batteries should show up in dealer showrooms within a year. In the mean time, let’s think about that solar or wind generating equipment.

Unless you live in a rural location, wind probably won’t be an option for you, so this article will focus on solar photovoltaic (PV) power instead. It’s important to understand that the charging requirements of a PHEV represent a heavy load, and therefore a hefty PV system will be needed to do the job. A system of that size doesn’t come cheap. On the other hand, the cost of the PV system is offset by the gas savings that you’ll experience with each mile that you drive. You’ll have to do your own math, but it’s not unusual nowadays to spend in excess of $300.00 for gas each month just to get to and from work. A PV system can be amortized over many years, lowering your transportation expenses considerably.

To do the calculations, you’ll need to see a specification sheet on the particular PHEV you choose to buy. You’ll need to know how many charging amps are required, and for how many hours. The distance you travel each day will be an important factor. You’ll either have more than enough power on a charge to get to and from work each day, or you’ll have to supplement power from the electric motor with the car’s gasoline motor. The gasoline engine extends the cars range, but at the cost of burning (expensive) gasoline. Again, you’ll have to do the math to see if a PHEV is right for your situation.

If PHEV’s catch on, and it’s likely that they will, refueling stations will begin to appear, especially in locations where cars are parked for an extended period of time. This will include parking lots associated with workplaces, motels, and shopping centers. Since the new breed of PHEV’s will use ordinary household 120-Volt AC service, finding a recharging location shouldn’t be a problem in the future. Since you’ll be able to recharge once you’ve reached your destination, the electric-only range of your vehicle is greatly extended, further reducing the likelihood that you’ll need to use gasoline.

Now for the bad news: To supply the energy needed to fully recharge a PHEV each day will require a PV array of about 4000-Watts. A system of that size will cost somewhere between $20 and $40 thousand dollars. However, federal and state programs will reduce that amount dramatically, depending upon where you live. If you can save $300 per month in gasoline, the payback period might be less than 4 years. And these figures don’t even take into account the fact that gasoline prices will most likely continue to climb.

Due to the high cost of a PV system, you may choose to charge your PHEV using utility-provided electricity. If utility rates go up, or the cost of solar panels goes down, you can adjust your strategy accordingly. Using utility-provided power, you may get the best rate at night when you’re likely to want to do the recharging anyway. Perhaps you’ll choose to install a down-sized PV system, providing a portion of the power needed to charge the PHEV. You can add to the PV system later if conditions change and it benefits you to do so.

If a plan that includes charging your PHEV using a PV system interests you, your first step might be to consider a few PV system options. You could opt for an off-grid PV system dedicated to the task of charging the vehicle, or maybe a grid-tied system that also provides some of your household power. An off-grid system is a good “green” choice, while a grid-tied system is a good “functional” choice. With ether option, you’ll never again need to be concerned about the cost or availability of gasoline, except perhaps for your lawn mower.

I’m going to tell my car dealer that I don’t intend to buy another vehicle until I can buy a PHEV. With enough consumer interest, car manufacturers will respond. If you can’t wait for a commercially available PHEV, I’ve heard of a California shop that converts ordinary gas-powered cars to plug-in electrics.


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