Has anyone else noticed how expensive gasoline is these days? Ten years ago a gallon of gas could be bought for under $1.00. Gasoline hit the $2.00 mark in 2004, and we were paying $3.00 per gallon in 2006. Now it looks like gas might hit $4.00 per gallon before the end of this year. If this trend continues, we’ll be paying $6.00 per gallon in 2012. Car manufactures are taking notice of this, and several have electric cars in the works.
Since the days of cheap gasoline seem to be gone forever, a sudden shift to electric cars is inevitable. With the automotive industry already working on electric cars, and battery manufacturers competing to see who can make the best batteries, we’re well on our way. The first generation of electric cars will be equipped with a small gasoline engine, included to extend the range of the car. These are called plug-in-hybrid-electric-vehicles, or PHEV’s. And while the PHEV is a great intermediate step, the gasoline engine will eventually be eliminated altogether. Quick charging batteries, and the emergence of battery charging stations, will make that possible.
It looks as if the transition to electric cars will be more of a landslide than a trickle, a scenario that will create some problems. The electric grid, which is already strained in some parts of the country, may not be able to handle the additional load of charging all of these vehicles. Fortunately, most of these electric cars will be charged at night, when other demands on the grid are low. V2G technology (cars that supply power to the grid during the day), will help, but infrastructure upgrades are needed before that can happen. We’ll pay for improvements, and for the upgrades needed for the implementation of V2G technology, through higher electric rates.
Another problem created by a sudden shift to electric cars is that there will be less money available for highway maintenance. Federal and state taxes on gasoline pay for road improvements, bridges, and maintenance. A sudden switch to electric transportation will reduce gasoline tax revenue, and it’s likely that we’ll be required to pay our share of road-usage taxes in some other way. If you use 25 gallons of gas per month, enough to drive about 500 miles, you’re paying about $150.00 per year in road-use taxes. Many of us are paying much more than that. To make up for the loss, we might see additional taxes on our electric bill, but that isn’t the best solution. There is no easy way of determining how much electricity is used for charging our car(s), and how much is ordinary household use. It’s likely that we’ll calculate our share of road-use tax via our state and federal income tax forms. Tax forms will include questions designed to determine how much electricity we use for charging our electric car(s).
The sudden need for more electricity does more than just strain the electrical grid, it means that coal-fired power plants will burn more coal. This will drive up the cost of coal, and you’ll pay for that on your electric bill. Any way you look at it you’re going to have to pay for electricity at an ever-increasing rate, and you’ll soon be taxed for the electricity you use at a much higher rate than you’re paying now. Just as gasoline prices have skyrocketed in recent times, the days of cheap electricity will end as well.
What can you do about it? I’m glad you asked!
Most of the country pays about ten cents per kilowatt hour for electricity now, making it possible to charge an electric vehicle for less than $1.00 per night. You’ll be able to drive 40 miles or more on an overnight charge, instead of burning five to eight dollars worth gasoline at today’s prices. What a deal! But with the likelihood that electric rates will soon mimic the steep increase of gasoline prices, it would be wise to consider other options. For many, a solar electric (PV) system is a great way to deal with the expense of, and problems related to, a sudden switch to electric transportation. It seems that those who already drive electric cars are aware of this, since 50% of them also use solar electric systems.
Off-grid or Grid-tied?
A grid-tied PV system may be the best choice for those served by a robust electrical grid. Electricity is fed into the grid during the day, offsetting electricity pulled from the grid at night. With a large enough system, the user contributes more than he withdraws, and therefore pays nothing for electricity. An off-grid PV system may be the best choice for those with marginal electric service, but system inefficiencies and the added cost of batteries will result in a much higher system cost.
While it’s alright to start out small, it’s going to take a substantial PV system to charge an electric car’s battery bank. GM’s Volt PHEV can be charged via a 110 volt standard home outlet, and a full charge will take 6 ½ hours. I suspect that the charge current will exceed 10 amps, or about 1100 watts, representing a pretty hefty load on a PV system. A 2kw grid-tied system will produce enough electricity (on sunny days) to offset the charging power supplied by the grid at night, but an off-grid system will need to be substantially larger than that in order to compensate for system inefficiencies. If you opt for an off-grid system, and if you’re able to charge your PHEV during the day, you’ll achieve efficiencies similar to those who implement a grid-tied system. An off-grid PV system operates much more efficiently when power flows directly from the solar panels to the load, instead of temporarily storing that power in PV system batteries and retrieving it later. Another thing to consider is that a two-car family will need a PV system twice as large as a one-car family. Still, you can start out with a small system that will generate a portion of your needs, and upgrade later.
PV system cost vs. savings:
As you do your homework you might be shocked by the high cost of a PV system, but don’t forget to do the math. By switching from a gas-powered car to electric, you might be eliminating $3600.00 worth of gasoline per year from your budget. If you apply those savings toward the purchase of a PV system, the payback period will be 2 to 5 years. And better yet, you’ll be driving on FREE power from the sun once your solar equipment is paid for. Any economist, I suspect, would call that a good investment.
Something else to consider:
Once your PV system is in place, you’ll use it as much as possible to charge your PHEV. During times when the sun doesn’t shine, you’ll need to charge your PHEV in some other way. For most people, that other way will be the power grid. This will be the best option as long as electric rates remain reasonable. Charging can be done by wind power, micro hydro, or even a bio-fueled generator after that.
If you don’t drive much on the weekends, you’ll have a surplus of electricity for household use at a time when you’ll need it most.
Like the invention of radio, TV, and the personal computer, the plug-in electric car appears to be the next great invention that will change the way we live. The sudden switch from gas to electricity will trigger an increase in the price we pay for electricity, but those who use PV for some or all of their needs will suffer the least. The surge in the cost of electricity will result in a greater demand for solar panels and equipment, leading to shortages and price increases. To avoid dealing with those shortages and price increases, now is the time to install solar electric panels and systems. And as an added bonus, the massive shift away from internal combustion engines, combined with an increased use of solar panels, will have a positive affect on the quality of our air. You gotta love that!
How will you charge your electric car?
With a credit card of course.