Sunday, December 19, 2010

A New Charging Dock and a New Electrical Panel

After months of planning and waiting, in the last two weeks there has been a lot of progress toward driving electric at our home. Our new main electric panel was installed last week, along with the TED (The Energy Detective) power monitoring system.  Our new charging dock (called an EVSE) was installed this week, wired to the new electrical panel with about 70 feet of wire and conduit.

The electric panel was upgraded to a new 200 Amp panel from our old original 100 Amp panel that was fully packed with circuit breakers.  The new panel provided plenty of space to install the new 40 Amp breaker for the EVSE.  The new panel also has space inside for the TED components that will be used to monitor our solar PV system output and the power sent from the home panel to charge the electric car.

We had a local electrician, Jason Wakefield, install the new panel.  Jason and one helper did the job in less than one day and we were without power for only about 6 hours.  Jason also helped me to connect the TED components inside the new panel at no extra charge.  We got a good price for an upgrade of this size, $2,300 including repairing the exterior stucco siding around the panel.

A few notes about installing and activating the TED system:
TED CTs (Current Transformers) clipped over 2 of my 4 incoming power leads
The TED system was the perfect Christmas gift for me.  I've become a "power geek", and I'm really looking forward to measuring the amount and the cost of power that will be used to charge our LEAF.  Also, I've long wanted a way to measure the power output of our solar PV system, and the TED is the way to go.  But as I expected, the TED isn't a simple plug and play system, and it is turning out to be as much of a project as I expected it to be.

1. The components that go inside the electric panel are of two types, MTUs and CTs.  The MTU's need to have three wires connected to the neutral bus and to two different phases (A and B) of a spare breaker.  It was very helpful to me to have an electrician to help me with those connections.  Most homeowners wouldn't know where to make the connections, and I would have found it scary to try to do it myself.

2. The heart of the TED system is a small brick shaped "gateway" that plugs into any home outlet, and connects via a network cable to your computer system's router.  This gateway gets the signals from the MTUs in the main panel.  Most new TED owners have trouble finding an outlet that is free from interference, and they find that they must locate the gateway in an inconvenient place in their home.  I got lucky and found an outlet in my home office that would work, and I just needed to buy a longer network cable to reach my router.

3.  I bought the optional TED handheld wireless display for an extra $40.  Though it isn't necessary, the display did help me in setting up the system, and it is fun to have a display that you can read without having to turn on your computer.   That said, I recently found a free app for my iPod Touch (called "Ted-O-Meter") that does much the same thing, though it does connect wirelessly to the router instead of to the gateway, so it wouldn't have helped in the system setup as much as the TED display did.

4.  I am still having a problem with the TED system being able to monitor my whole-house power usage.  The problem is that my new power panel has a split feed for the incoming power lines from the meter, so I have four incoming wires instead of two.  The TED system isn't set up for this configuration, so I'm going to have to get creative in finding a solution.

The Aerovironment Charging Dock (EVSE)

I finally decided to have the EVSE installed through Aerovironment (AV).  It was a hard decision because it did wind up costing a bit more than if I had had my own electrician run the wiring and conduit and had bought the EVSE separately.  But for the extra few hundred dollars, I got a better warranty on the EVSE and the peace of mind of using Nissan's preferred partner and a guaranteed good fit for my new LEAF.

The EVSE was installed inside my garage. The wiring was run from the new electric panel through an attic, out and down through our atrium garden, into the garage through the stucco wall and finally through a disconnect box to the EVSE.

The EVSE installation took about 5 hours.  The installers were local partners with Aerovironment, who are partners with Nissan.  A special AV diagnostic tool was used to check the function of the new EVSE.

Dude, Where's My Car?

So now we are ready to charge an electric car at home.  I was surprised how good it felt to look at my new EVSE and realize that I now have a filling station in my garage!  Very cool.

 Now comes the big question.  When do I get my new EV?  I hope that the answer is February.  A more likely answer is March.  And April is not out of the question.

The first LEAF worldwide was delivered in San Francisco last week, followed by individual cars in San Diego, Phoenix and a few other areas.  But the next phase of deliveries may not happen this month.  Some very early reservation holders who were able to place their orders on August 31 have been told that they will get their cars in the first week of January.  Some customers with slightly later order dates, like September 1, were first given delivery months of February, but are now being told that March is more likely.

Up to date information can be found on the premier Nissan LEAF discussion forum, .

The delivery status for our car is still listed as "Pending".  Since my BMW is due to be returned on January 13, I stand to be without a car for between one and three months.

Our Costs to Date:
Electric Panel Upgrade:  $2,300
EVSE: $2,636 includes $100 initial assessment fee, credited to total
TED 5003C power monitoring system: $430 including longer network cable

Monday, November 29, 2010

Our Plans for Home Charging, Part III

Now that we've decided on our plan for installing a home charger for our new Nissan LEAF electric car, things are in motion to make the plan a reality.  I've scheduled our electrician, Jason Wakefield, to upgrade our electrical panel from 100 Amps to a new 200 Amp panel next Tuesday, December 7.  I've also ordered a TED 5003 energy monitor for my Christmas present.  The TED 5003 will be installed in our new power panel and it will let me monitor our solar electrical production, our main household power usage and the power used to charge our new LEAF.  It still remains to schedule Aerovironment, Nissan's partner to install their EVSE (home charging dock).  I'm waiting for a few days to hear from Aerovironment on an updated quote.

The TED 5003 will not only monitor our power production and usage, but through a partnership with Google, the information will be sent to a web site that I'll always be able to view via the Internet.  Here's a link to Google's PowerMeter home site:

Southern California Edison's EV Charging Rate Plans

I was able to speak with analysts from SCE at the recent LA Auto Show about their EV charging rate plan, called TOU-D-TEV.  This rate plan has two pricing tiers and three time-of-day periods, with the Super-Off-Peak time period priced lowest to encourage customers to charge their EVs after midnight, when electrical demand is lowest.

I learned a lot about how the rate plan works, but a big question remains.  After much discussion on the My Nissan Leaf forum, I realized that in calculating our baseline allowance, our negative usage, that is the amount of power we send back to SCE's grid, is ADDED instead of being subtracted from the amount of power that we draw from the grid.  That means that as we make more solar power, we are pushed into the higher pricing tier for EV charging!  That should not happen.  I'm in contact with an analyst at SCE who will help to resolve this confusing issue.

What's Happening in the LEAF World?

1.  The first US LEAF delivery will apparently happen on December 11, when a Northern California man will receive his black LEAF, accompanied by lots of press coverage.

2.  It is rumored that about 50 LEAFs will be delivered in five states in early December.  The same rumor has it that another shipment will arrive in late December.  Forum members on who were able to order their LEAFs on August 31, the first day that orders were enabled, have been notified that their cars will be delivered in January.

3.  As for us, our Nissan online "dashboard" still shows a delivery date of "Pending".  I'm guessing that our car will be delivered in February or March.  Since my BMW's lease is up on January 13, I may be without a car for a few weeks.  I'll be talking with BMW dealers about my options.  I'd love to rent a Mini for a few weeks.

More on our waiting game and the progress on our new power panel in my next blog post.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Our Plans for Home Charging, Part II

In my last post, I said that I had a plan for our home charging dock wiring.  I had calculated that our utility, Southern California Edison's dual meter Time of Use plan would be the most economical for us, and I was trying to determine how I would be able to install a second electrical meter.

Since my last post, we've learned a lot more.  In talking to an SCE planner, I was told that we would not be able to use a space-saving small meter socket because they are not allowed, due to overheating and failure.  The other choices would be to use a second full size meter panel or to change our main panel and install a dual meter panel.  But there is no room on our wall for a full size panel and an electrician told me yesterday that a dual meter panel is also not workable due to available wall space and the higher cost of the panel.  So we've decided to eliminate the dual meter plan and go with SCE's single meter Time of Use plan.  This is not a huge deal, but it might cost us a few hundred dollars extra per year in higher electrical costs due to possibly entering a higher level rate zone at some times.

We have also decided to go ahead and have our crowded 100 Amp main electrical panel replaced with a new 200 Amp panel with more breaker slots.  There are a few reasons for this decision.  Our current panel has a lot of wiring, apparently added by a previous owner, that might not pass inspection if it were inspected today.  Without upgrading the main panel, I'm concerned that the current Aerovironment installation plan won't pass city inspection.  We're also concerned about going forward with a fully packed existing main panel with no room for expansion.  And lastly, I'd like room in the panel to install a TED ("The Energy Detective" monitoring system so that we can electronically monitor our solar power production, our SCE energy usage and the power used to charge our EV.  I currently record those numbers manually, and the TED would allow me to have the numbers automatically sent to a web site.

I've also decided to go ahead with Aerovironment (AV) to install their EVSE after the new main panel is in place.  I did take a look at the cost to have the electrician who'll do the main panel upgrade also do the wiring for the EVSE.  The AV solution will cost a few hundred dollars more, but it will be a simpler, one stop solution, that will keep me from having to look for the EVSE equipment from another manufacturer and have it installed.  It should also be able to be installed before the end of the year.

The total expected cost will be about $4,900, including $2,300 for the main panel upgrade and $2,600 for the AV equipment and the wiring installation.

Other News from the World of LEAF

* Rumors are swirling about who will get the first LEAFs delivered in the US, and when they will get them.  First, all of the buyers who were able to order and did so on August 31, 2010, had a delivery date of December 2010 appear on their Nissan LEAF online "dashboard".  Then most of those dates were changed to January of 2011.  Now, we hear that about 50 LEAFs will be delivered in December to a carefully selected group of early orderers.  There may be a second shipment arriving in December, also.  With our own order date of September 3, we may be looking at a February or March delivery.

* Though the Chevy Volt has been named Motor Trend Car of the Year and has received the Green Car Award at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the Nissan LEAF won Green Car Report's Best Car to Buy in 2011.

* Test drive after test drive and report after report, automotive journalists are saying the same things about the LEAF.  That it is a real car, not a science project.  That it is just like any other car in the same family sedan market segment.  It is peppy, fun to drive, silent, full of information displays to help you gauge your available driving range, and economical to drive.

We can't wait for our new LEAF.

In my next post, more details about the progress of the LEAF roll-out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Our Plans for Home Charging

Here at the end of October, after having ordered our LEAF in early September and having test driven the LEAF several times earlier this month, we are focused on deciding exactly how we will charge the car.  The most convenient home charging will be done with a "Level 2" 240 volt EVSE (charging dock) that we'll need to connect to special supply wiring.

I'll be brief because this can get technical very quickly.

Working with our utility, SCE, I've determined that our best choice is to have a second electrical meter installed for charging our LEAF on a Time of Use plan.  This will have the advantage of low rates for night time charging ($0.11 per kWh), without running into higher tier rates if we need to charge the LEAF battery a lot.  This works well with a Time Of Use tiered rate plan for our household power use and our solar PV system's power production during Peak hours.

Right now, I'm trying to figure out how that second meter is going to be installed.  The problem is physical space on the outside wall of the house.  We need to mount a new meter panel and there isn't enough wall space to place it on.  I'm working with SCE to see if a more compact solution will work. I hope to use a small separate meter socket along with a small panel for the circuit breakers that will fit in the space available.  I'm waiting to see if that will be approved by SCE and the City.

Once we've settled the point of the electrical meter and panel, we'll be able to make a decision about whether to go with a modified quote from Nissan's EVSE partner, Aerovironment, or to use an independent electrician and choose the EVSE equipment from one of several makers.

If we can't get this decided, approved and installed by the time the LEAF is delivered, we'll use 110 volt "trickle charging", though Carol strongly prefers having a full EVSE solution in place from the day we bring the LEAF home.

What Else is Happening in the LEAF world?

  • The Nissan Drive Electric Tour is moving through California and then on to the other "Early Roll Out States" of Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Tennessee, allowing those holding reservations to test drive the LEAF for the first time.

  • Journalists are getting to visit Nissan's US headquarters in Tennessee for longer test drives and to learn more about the LEAF.
  • In late September, Nissan suspended new orders for the LEAF on its web site.  This is to allow production to catch up to the demand of the 20,000 early reservations.  So for the time being, it is not possible to reserve a new LEAF.  Hopeful buyers might be able to buy a LEAF from dealers who may have some available when buyers who have ordered change their minds before delivery.
  • The LEAF production line has begin operation in Japan. 
  • There is much excitement and anticipation to see when the first LEAF deliveries will happen here in the US.  Most people think that up to 200 cars will be delivered in December, distributed through the five early roll out states.
  • In California, those who have ordered their LEAFs are anxious to make sure that they get the $5,000 rebate available for EVs through the California Center for Sustainable Energy.  Rebate funds can only be reserved on the CCSE web site on the day the EV is delivered.  At this time, there is about $8.2 million available for these rebates, enough for rebates for about 1,600 LEAFs.  Other EVs are eligible, so time is of the essence.
Updates on my next blog post

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where do we Stand Now?

Fourteen blog posts and a lot of background information posted.  Now I'm going to "change gears", so to speak, and talk in real time about what is happening in the EV world as we go forward.  I'll also be blogging about our own plans to get our home ready for the arrival of our LEAF and about the buying and delivery process.

On September 3, I was lucky enough to be able to order my Nissan LEAF.  After I reserved a LEAF last April, I was sent an email that said that I had a September order date.  The first people to order were given an August order date, and they all were able to order on August 31.  I was one of the first people who were able to order in September.  The notification that I could order on September 3 was a great relief, since I didn't have to wait through the month to find out when I could order.  I believe that my car will be among the first to be delivered, maybe in December, but probably in January.

My early order date makes it more likely that I'll be able to receive the California $5,000 EV rebate.  About $4 million in rebate dollars were made available through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project administered by the California Center for Sustainable Energy  There is currently $3,210,456 remaining in the first year of funding, but an additional $5 million in funding was added for the 2010-2011 budget year.  If all of the remaining funds, minus administrative costs, were awarded to LEAF buyers, about 1,500 awards would be available.  I hope to be one of those.  (By the way, the Chevy Volt is NOT eligible for this rebate, due to emissions and battery warranty issues.)

The production Blue Ocean color, deeper than the light blue shown on the first prototypes.  Our LEAF will look like this.

Beginning on October 1, Nissan began staging a series of driving events to allow the public to test drive the LEAF.  I attended two of these events, in Santa Monica and in Anaheim.  I've now driven the LEAF three times and Carol has driven it, as well.

Though the driving events didn't allow us to get the LEAF up to highway speeds or to test its handling at higher speeds, we were able to experience its acceleration and handling at neighborhood speeds.  In general, we're very happy with the car.  The passenger compartment is roomier than our Prius, and the LEAF accelerated from rest faster and is much quieter than the Prius.  In fact, it is quieter than most luxury cars.  The front seats were comfortable for both of us, and I found the front passenger space to be more comfortable than our Prius.  The handling was nimble and the cornering was flat, due to the low center of gravity.  The instrument panel is very high-tech and colorful and it gives the car a higher level, fun feel.  The LEAF is equipped with a navigation system that will show the locations of available public charging stations and will tell the driver how far s/he can drive with the remaining battery charge.

On the negative side, the interior materials are not at luxury car standards.  The fabrics and plastics are on a par with a Prius.  This makes sense.  The list price of the LEAF is around $33,000, which is at the entry  luxury level, but it is well known that the batteries are a high cost item on an EV, and the money was spent there, rather than on a luxurious interior.  The trunk space is fairly small, smaller even than a Prius, due to the unusual rear styling.  So it may be difficult to carry one of the larger folding strollers without folding down one of the rear seatbacks.  Also, the rear floor is higher, so there may be less foot room for rear passengers.

We also got to see the other four colors in person for the first time.  Here they are:





Next blog post:  Our plans for home charging.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Electrical Charging Costs and Special Utility Time of Use Programs

Costs of Driving an EV Compared with Driving a Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) car:
Nissan says that average electrical rates in the United States are about 11 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).  EVs can drive about 4 miles per kWh of power from their batteries. So it costs an average of 2.75 cents per mile for power, or $2.75 for 100 miles of driving.

The Toyota Prius averages 50 mpg.  At $3 per gallon, that would be $6 per 100 miles.

A great many cars on the road today average 20 mpg combined. At $3 per gallon, that would be $15 per 100 miles.

If a family drives an EV an average 12,000 miles per year, they would save $390 per year over driving a Prius, and they would save $1,470 over driving an average 20 mpg ICE car.  As gas prices rise, these savings will become more dramatic.  For homes like ours with excess solar power available, the electricity costs can be considered zero for the miles driven on excess solar power, so again, the savings would be greater.

Maintenance costs for an EV will likely be less than for an ICE.  These include oil and filter changes, belt and timing chain adjustments, and maintenance on the cooling, exhaust, transmission and ignition systems. Except for the systems for cooling the batteries and inverter, EVs usually lack these systems, so maintenance should be far less expensive.

Systems that are common between EVs and ICE cars include tires, brakes and instrumentation systems, though the brakes on an EV will wear more slowly than those on an ICE car because of the EV's regenerative braking system.

Battery replacement costs may be a major expense for EVs kept for longer than their battery warranty periods, which are 8 years for the Leaf and the Volt.  These batteries may cost thousands of dollars and more, though prices may drop a lot in the next decade.  Battery life is still an unknown for the new crop of BEVs and much will be learned on this topic over the next decade, as the performance of the batteries in the hands of consumers is revealed.

Special Utility Time of Use Rates:
Public utilities are interested in encouraging the adoption of EVs for several reasons.  Governments are incentivizing them to make EV adoption more attractive to consumers.  The utilities will be able to sell more electrical power (realize that the utilities will replace the oil companies as energy suppliers for these cars).  If EV drivers charge their cars late at night, the utilities will be able to better balance the use of their power plants.  Most power plants are not efficient to ramp up and down between high and low usage times of the day.  So it is to the utilities' advantage to have power usage increase at night, while not increasing during the daytime peak use times.  It has been calculated that we can add four million EVs in California without building any new power plants IF the EVs are charged at night.

Off-peak charging times are usually any time other than noon to 6 pm.  Some utilities offer so called Super Off-Peak rates for charging between midnight and 5 am.  High power (Level 2) charging at home can reduce overall charging time, and thereby make it easier to charge during the off-peak times.  The EVs' onboard computers and the EVSE systems provide charging timers to that you can program the charging times easily.

For these reasons, utilities are making available special Time Of Use (TOU) rate schedules.  Rates vary widely around the country, but rates as low as 4 cents per kWh are available in some areas.   In my area of Southern California, rates as low as 8 or 9 cents per kWh are available at night as compared with 15 cents for regular daytime use.  That difference could translate to a savings of $210 per year.

To be able to use these TOU rates to charge an EV during off-peak times, a homeowner needs to obtain a special electric meter that can record the times and amounts of power usage.  These TOU meters are usually  available at no extra charge from the utility, and technicians will install them for you.  Some utilities are installing so-called "Smart Meters" that are computerized and can communicate with the utility wirelessly.

In my next blog post:  Where Are We Now in the Introduction Timeline for the New EVs?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Need a Charging Dock? What's That?

All of the information provided by Nissan and other EV companies about charging the cars tends to minimize the cost and complexity of setting up your home to become your new EV fueling station.  The advertising tends to say something like "Just plug it in when you get home and the car will charge itself while you sleep, just like your cell phone."  Is that true?  Well, yes, but only after you have at least some work done in your garage.  How much work depends on how your home is set up electrically.

First, Some Education About Charging Levels
As simply put as possible, here are the three charging levels used to charge EVs in the USA.
Level 1: 110 volts.  The regular plugs found throughout our homes.  This is called "trickle charging" and Nissan calls it "emergency charging" because they would rather that we use Level 2.  To charge a Leaf from an empty battery to full using Level 1 takes 18 hours or more!
Level 2: 240 volts.  This is the same type of circuit that is used for electric clothes dryers.  To charge a Leaf using Level 2 takes 6 to 8 hours.
Level 3:  480 volts.  This is almost never used in residences, but is found in public charging stations.  Nissan calls this "quick charging" and a Leaf can be charged from almost empty to 80% full in about 25 minutes.  Frequent use of Level 3 charging, such as more than once per day, can degrade the life of the Leaf's main traction battery prematurely, so it is not recommended.

                                     Nissan/Aerovironment Level 2 EVSE

What do I Plug In, and Where?
The Leaf and other EVs can't use a standard extension cord.  This is because of the high voltages involved.  While folks in Europe routinely use 240 volt power, our protective government doesn't want Americans to take the risk, so they've written a standard that forces us to use expensive connectors.  The standard for Levels 1 and 2 has been agreed upon and it is called a J1772 connector.  This is a special plug that plugs directly into a receptacle on the car and the other end is attached to the power source.  For Level 1, the cord comes with the Leaf as standard equipment and one end does just plug into a 110 volt wall outlet (hopefully a ground fault interrupter (GFCI)) in our garages.  By the way, an EV with a smaller battery, such as the Chevy Volt, can get by with Level 1 charging, so there doesn't really need to be electrical work done in the home.
For Level 2, you have to buy a charging dock called an EVSE (Electric Vehicle Service Equipment).  These charging docks cost from $700 up to $2,000 and above AND most of them must be wired directly ("hard wired") to a 240 volt circuit in your garage or parking space.  This circuit must have a 40 amp circuit breaker in your main electrical power panel.  Depending on how much space and power is available in your home power panel, and whether or not you have an electric dryer or spa or air conditioning that draws a lot of power, you might need to have an entire new electrical panel or sub-panel installed and you might need to have wiring run inside electrical conduit for tens of feet.  Total costs for the upgrade can run from $1,000 to more than $5,000.  There is a federal tax credit that can refund half of the costs if the work is done in 2010, but if you are like us and you must pay Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), you don't get that credit at all.

Who Installs an EVSE?
A licensed electrician needs to install the new circuit breaker, run the wiring and connect the EVSE to the wires.  Some EV buyers want an EVSE that is portable and can plug in at their friends' homes when they travel.  Some of these plug-in EVSEs may become available soon.  But you'll still need a special connector to attach the EVSE to in your garage.

What About Those Who Live in Condos or Apartments?
These folks will have to work with their property managers to see if it is possible to run the wiring from their power panel, mount the EVSE in their parking area, and ensure that the EV owner is getting charged for the extra electrical power used.  The EVSEs are all weatherized to allow them to be used outdoors.  But that can be a big investment, and if the EV owner is not going to stay in the residence long-term, there is little incentive for the property owner to pay for the upgrade, unless they are very green-minded.

Nissan and Aerovironment
Nissan wanted to make the home charger installation as simple for their new Leaf buyers as possible, so they contracted with a single EVSE manufacturer, a defense contractor called Aerovironment (AV).  AV is building EVSEs marked with Nissan logos and they are subcontracting with local electricians to do the installations.  Customers can order home EVSE assessments on the Nissan web site for $100, and that fee is included as a down payment if and when you pay for your EVSE installation.  Sounds simple and good, eh?

Not really.  Almost everyone I've spoken to or whose comments I've read online is disgusted with the high prices AV is charging.  They have a standard fee of $2,200 for an installation.  That applies whether a home is wired and ready for the EVSE or if the home needs 30 feet of conduit and a new circuit breaker installed.  If further work is needed, the price goes up from there.  In addition, AV's EVSE is very simple and includes no power usage meter or monitoring, and no programming or informatic connection capability.

So people are looking for alternatives.  There are a lot of companies making or planning to make Level 2 EVSEs for home use, but few are available to buy right now, and most are more expensive than AV's $720 list price for the EVSE alone (not installed).

The EV Project
Some lucky Leaf buyers in places like San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington State and Arizona have been accepted into a government funded program called "The EV Project".  They will receive free home EVSEs AND they will get the Level 3 charging capability on their Leafs for free, normally a $700 upgrade option on the car purchase price.

So Here's What I'm Doing
I had my AV home assessment done for the $100 fee and the charges come to $2,636 to install the new circuit breaker and run 60 feet of wire and conduit and to install the EVSE, complete.  I had two independent electricians give me bids on the installation part, and AV's price compared well with those two bids.  So I'm set, right?

Well, no.  My 100 amp home electrical panel is physically full of circuit breakers, partly due to my solar panel system's breakers.  So I need either a sub-panel added or a complete main panel upgrade, which will cost at least $2,000, and that's a low price for that upgrade.  AV gave me an updated EVSE quote, and it is currently open-ended, leaving them the option of re-quoting me for a panel upgrade at an as-yet unknown price.

So I need to push AV to make my quote more definite, or I need to find an alternative EVSE, and I'll probably need to have the panel upgraded.  I'm looking at spending at least $4,500 for my home charging solution.

That kind of expense really eats into a person's gasoline savings.  Hence my comment on a previous post that the potential savings in gas costs for an EV can really be offset by other costs.  The good part of having the electrical upgrades done is that they should last for years.  But if a family is planning to move any time soon, that cost is an even bigger consideration.

Next Blog Post:  Electrical Charging Costs and Special Utility Time of Use Programs

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nissan's Nifty Ordering System for the Leaf. How Did it Work Out?

In my last post, I explained the advantages of Nissan's innovative online reservation and ordering system.  I explained that it is designed to put the power in the hands of the customers, to be as fair as possible, and to reduce uncertainty and stress.   How did it work in reality?

Well, like anything else new and complicated, the result was both good and bad.

I'll start out by summarizing the good and the bad, and then I'll talk about my own experience.

The Good:
As I mentioned before, Nissan's online system definitely put much of the control in the hands of the buyers and took away the ability of the dealers to pad prices.  This is because the system is basically a factory ordering system, and the choice of delivery dealership is totally in the customers' hands.  If you don't like the price quoted by one dealer, then you can take your reservation to another dealer.  Because of that and because of online discussion forums, word got out when dealers were willing to discount the car.  Small dealerships in some areas were willing to offer discounts to get more sales.  Other dealers followed so that they wouldn't lose the business.  Some Arizona and California customers ordered from dealers as far away as Washington State to get a good price!  The dealers covered part or all of the cost of shipping the car to the customers.  The fact that Nissan put the power in the hands of the customers is a huge and revolutionary idea, and this is the reason why I think that the online system is a big success.

The Not-so-Good:
In other ways, the system brought its own types of uncertainty and stress.  Nissan never made clear what factors determine a buyer's priority in line to buy the car.  During the reservation process, their help staff said that a delay in reserving because of a web glitch wouldn't cause a delay in ordering or delivery of the car.  Later, they said that the reservation timing is the sole determinant of order priority within a region.  Lots of people had issues with their online accounts due to issues with Nissan's web site.  When it came time to place orders for the cars, it was never clear why some people were able to order on August 31 and why some had to wait until September.  For those who were to order in September, Nissan gave no clue as to which day in September.  So buyers were obsessively checking their status on the Nissan site every few minutes for days, waiting to be able to order, and not sure if a delay on their part in placing the order would delay their place in line to get the car.  Some people are still waiting, as of September 18.  Timing is important to buyers because they may need to take delivery of the car during 2010 for tax purposes, and in certain states such as California, rebate money is first come, first served until the money is exhausted.  The delivery dates of the ordered cars are still not known, though Nissan has promised to post them on the web site when manufacturing begins in October.

Though Nissan set up online help chat and a phone help line, the people answering those lines often were told very little, or they gave conflicting information.  So uncertainty and stress are still part of the process for some of the buyers, despite Nissan's efforts to make the experience simple and straightforward for the buyers.

My Own Experience:
My own experience was stressful from the start.  Like all of those who reserved early, I waited all day on April 20 to get my email telling me that I could go ahead and put down my $99 deposit and reserve my Leaf. My email didn't arrive until about 30 minutes before the announced end of the open period, just before 6 pm Eastern Time.  Issues with Nissan's web site not being able to accept my AMEX card, though they listed AMEX as an option, plus typographical errors on my part caused my account to lock.  After calling Nissan's help line and waiting my turn to talk to a human, I was told that they would look into it and call me back in 5 to 7 days!  I was beyond frustrated, since it seemed that I would lose the chance for an early place "in line" due to Nissan's issues with its web site. Eventually, days later, I was able to reserve my spot, with further issues, involving a duplicate account, two credit cards being charged, etc.

When ordering opportunities were announced, I was somewhat surprised and pleased to see that  I would be able to order in September, and I was able to order on September 3.  But I still experienced anxiety while waiting for my order window to open, and it just as easily could have been September 12 or later, and I would have been left hanging for days, not knowing if I had fallen further behind in line.

So though Nissan did successfully put some of the power into the hands of its customers, they also created their own kinds of stress and uncertainty in the way they implemented their new system.

In my next blog post:  I Need a Charging Dock?  What's That?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So I Like the Leaf. How do I Get One?

How does one usually go about buying or leasing a hot new car that is in limited supply?  Usually, you go to one or more car dealerships and get your name on their "list".  Sometimes they ask for a deposit.  Discounts are never possible.  In fact, you're usually lucky if they'll allow you to buy the car at MSRP. Instead, dealers usually mark up the price by several thousand dollars.  When the car arrives, they may or may not call you according to their list if they can get a better price from someone who walks in the door with more money.  When you finally get the car, you are usually angry, stressed and you'll probably regret paying higher than MSRP after a year, when the car is being widely discounted.

In fact, that is the way it works in almost every case.  And that is what some prospective buyers of the Chevy Volt are experiencing today.

Nissan decided on an innovative online system to help to make the buyers' experience more predictable and less stressful.  Prospective buyers registered on Nissan's Leaf web site before the middle of April, 2010.  On April 20, people on the interest list were sent emails telling them that they could register their interest in buying the car.  They each put down a $99 deposit to hold their reservation.  The process can be tracked on the web site. Then, beginning on August 31, reservees were notified that they could place their orders.  The orders were placed through Nissan dealers who were pre-selected by the customers.

This system made the buying process transparent, and the power was in the hands of the customers.  They could negotiate the selling price in advance, and the dealers knew that the buyer could take his reservation to another dealer if he/she didn't like the price.  The result was that dealers began to DEAL.  Through online forums such as , prospective buyers could find out which dealers were discounting the Leaf.  This led to more discounting by other dealers.  Discounts of $1,000 became common and a few dealers offered discounts of 5% off the $34,000 MSRP, equal to a $1,700 discount, or more if the optional equipment was discounted.

So as of this writing, the same system is in place.  You can buy a Leaf by registering on the Leaf web site: . Since the car is in limited supply and the production and sales are being carefully managed by Nissan, you may not be able to place your order for a Leaf until early 2011, with delivery of the car by summer or fall.

Alternatively, if you really want or need the car sooner and you haven't registered with Nissan yet, you could try talking to dealers to see if they have a list of prospective buyers who are interested in buying a car if a registered buyer cancels their order.  It is possible that these cars may become "orphans" and that dealers will be able to sell them as they become available.  I don't know this for sure, and it is also possible that these "orphan" Leafs will be offered to the next registered buyers in line.  If dealers do have orphan cars for sale, be prepared for them to charge additional fees.

My next blog topic: My experience with Nissan's ordering system.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

And....I Chose... the Nissan Leaf!!

My Next Car: The Nissan Leaf SL Electric Car

So after thinking hard and comparing the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, I chose the Leaf!


First let's look again at my reasons for wanting an EV.

1) I want to reduce my oil consumption and my carbon footprint.
2) I want a fun, interesting car to drive.
3) I'd like to make good use of the extra electric power that our solar PV system makes.
4) I'd like to support the adoption of EVs in our country to help us to use less foreign and domestic oil.
5) I think it would be fun to be an early adopter and I'd like to be in a position to explain EVs to other potential EV owners and to help automakers and governments to understand how people will use EVs.
6) I'd like to experience what it is like to drive an EV in daily life, including using public charging opportunities when needed to boost my range.
7) I'd like to reduce our family driving costs.

I thought that the Volt would be a less aggressive move to reduce oil usage and reduce our CO2 production because of its gas engine.  The all-electric Leaf felt like a more positive choice in that regard.

The purchase price was a factor as well.  Though I plan to lease the Leaf, and the Volt can be leased for a similar cost, I'm skeptical of being able to get that low lease price from the Chevy dealers.  Both cars are in very limited supply, but the Chevy dealers are known to be trying to gouge extra profits on the Volt.  I had much more confidence in Nissan's internet sales plan that keeps the dealers from trying to get extra profits.

I also liked the flexibility of being able to seat five people in the Leaf, as compared to four in the Volt.

The Leaf meets all of my needs in a car to replace my current BMW.  I don't have a daily commute, and I drive only about 6,000 miles per year.  We'll drive the Leaf more miles than that, replacing some of the miles that we currently drive the Prius.  But the 100 mile range of the Leaf should be more than enough for the neighborhood driving that we do, and the Prius is already, and will remain our car for distance driving.

Annual costs:
The question of the cost of driving is still an open one.  Charging the Leaf late at night during so-called "Off-Peak" hours will cost between two and three cents per mile.  Driving our Prius hybrid costs about twice that amount.  There will be no energy costs for up to 5,000  miles per year because of the extra power our solar PV system makes.  I calculate that overall, we'll save close to $1,200 per year in fuel costs.  There may also be some savings in car repair costs.

However, we'll be spending about $2,700 in electrical upgrades to our home to accommodate the 240 volt charging system for the Leaf.  So divided by three years, those upgrades will reduce our savings to only $300 per year.  Of course, the electrical upgrades will last for much longer than three years, so they can be used for other electric cars we might own as well.

So it doesn't make sense to drive electric to save money.  The attraction needs to be one of reducing pollution, using no petroleum, and having your own electric way to fuel your family car.  It is attractive to think that when the next oil company-manufactured gas shortage happens, I can smile and ignore it.

Fun and sporty to drive:
This was the one area that caused me a lot of thought.  The Volt seemed to be a sportier car than the Leaf, and a choice of a gas-powered sporty but efficient car like the Mini or a Miata might also be more fun to drive.  But as I've focused on the Leaf, I've become really enthusiastic about this new way of driving.  I think that the novelty of an EV, combined with the strong torque of the electric motor will be plenty satisfying to me.    But I'm leasing the Leaf, so if I find it boring, I will look for something more interesting after the three year lease is up.

In My Next Blog Post:  How Do I Get One of These Cars?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Volt - Leaf, How do I Choose?

So, lucky me, two major car companies are releasing new EVs exactly when I need a new car to replace my current car when its lease expires.  How do I choose?  That's really a good question because they both have positive and negative attributes.  As is often the case, it becomes an individual decision based on a person's driving needs.

Chevy Volt
1) The biggest factor: Extended Range. The Volt answers the range anxiety question decisively with its on-board gasoline powered engine/generator.  When the main electric drive battery is discharged to a set amount (after about 40 miles of driving), the Volt starts up its engine and makes more electric power to run the car.  The car is still driven by its electric motor, but the electricity comes from the generator powered by the engine.  So the Volt can be your one and only car, just like any hybrid or plug-in hybrid can.
2) Appearance: Of the two cars, the Volt looks more conventional and is more attractive to many people's eyes.
3) Plugging In:  The Volt plugs in to outlets already found in most peoples' garages to charge its main battery.
4) Acceleration:  Early reports have the Volt performance a bit better than the Leaf's.
5) Made in the USA:  While most cars today, including the Volt, have some parts made in other countries, the Volt is made by General Motors.  This is a big factor to many people, especially as we watch GM try to recover from bankruptcy and government support.
6) Technically complex and interesting design

1) Gasoline:  The Volt uses gasoline to drive beyond 40 miles after being charged.  Many people want an EV for the express purpose of getting off gasoline, for many reasons.  To these people, the Volt is just a plug-in hybrid.  And the gas mileage is still a big secret.
2) Appearance:  To some people, the Volt looks too much like a Prius, and not enough like something really new.
3) Price:  Starting at $41,000 and going up significantly from there, the Volt's price is daunting.   The lease price of $350/month, clearly established to help the Volt compete with the Leaf, is more encouraging, but it isn't clear whether anyone will be able to get such a good deal in the real world.
4) Sales Plan: Chevy's sales plan is the same car dealer-based system we all know and hate, so price gouging has already been seen, to the tune of thousands of dollars.  Even without price gouging, a buyer must go from dealer to dealer seeking the best deal, and then hope that the dealer will deal honestly with them.
5) Government Incentives:  Though the Volt is eligible for the same $7,500 federal tax credit as the Leaf, it is NOT eligible for the California $5,000 rebate.  Combined with the higher price tag of the Volt, this is a big deal.
7) Passenger Capacity:  The Volt only seats four, while the Leaf seats five.  This is because the Volt's design uses up the rear center seat space for its T-shaped battery pack.
8) Technical Complexity: Compared to a battery EV ("BEV") like the Leaf, nothing like the Volt has ever been made before.  The complexity of marrying the gas-powered generator smoothly and reliably with the electric drive system is daunting.  Will the first generation of the Volt be reliable, or will the first buyers unexpectedly find that they are test engineers?
9) Probable Repair and Maintenance Costs:  Not only does the Volt have the high voltage electric drive system, it also has fuel, ignition, engine management and exhaust systems, as well as sound and vibration deadening issues.  It seems that the Volt must cost more to maintain and repair than a pure EV.

Nissan Leaf
1) Relatively Simple Design:  EVs have been built and studied before.  Nissan's goal is to mass-produce the first affordable BEV (battery electric vehicle).  Since they don't have to develop an all-new complex drivetrain design like the Volt's, Nissan can concentrate on making their simpler BEV work well from the start.
2) Price:  The basic Leaf starts at $32,780 before incentives, over $8,000 less expensive than the Volt.
3) Government Incentives: The Leaf is eligible for both the Federal $7,500 tax credit and the California $5,000 rebate.
4) Passenger Capacity: The Leaf seats five compared to the Volt's four.
5) Appearance: While odd-looking to many, some people like the fact that the Leaf looks like something new and different, which it is.
6) A True EV:  Using no gasoline and boasting no tailpipe, the Leaf is what EV enthusiasts, environmentalists and average people looking to drive gas-free have been waiting for.
7) Sales Plan: Nissan has created an innovative online reservation and ordering process.  Because this process is run by Nissan centrally, the dealers are really limited to handling the paperwork and delivery process, and the customers hold the power because they can take their reservation number to another dealer to get a better deal.  This sales design has created competition among dealers so that I personally will get a $1,000 DISCOUNT and other customers will do even better.  This is compared to price gouging among Chevy Volt dealers.

1) Range: This is the big one. Unless a person has another way to travel distances further than the Leaf's promised 100 mile range, the Leaf can't be your only car.  There are ways to overcome this problem, such as borrowing or renting a car, using public transportation, and others, but most of us don't want to give up our cars for distance driving.  And people with long daily or weekly commutes may also find that the Leaf's range is not adequate for them.  Public charging stations at workplaces and along highways can help with this, but charging takes at least 25 minutes to several hours, so this isn't as convenient as filling up at your local Mobil station.
2) Plugging In: Because the Leaf's battery is larger than the Volt's and is the Leaf's only source of energy, charging the Leaf takes longer or requires higher voltages than charging the Volt.  That means that if you plug in to a 110 volt outlet that is already in most people's garages, it will take about 18 hours to charge the Leaf.  So Nissan recommends that you have a 240 volt circuit run from your home's power panel to your garage to charge the Leaf.  And this also requires a charging station costing at least $750 in addition.  I've been quoted a price of over $2,600 for these electrical upgrades to my house.  There is a Federal tax credit to cover some of this, but I'm not eligible for it because of the Alternative Minimum Tax.
3) Appearance:  Most people, including me, find the looks of the Leaf strange, fish-like, and not very attractive.
4) Foreign-Made: Though Nissan is building a factory for the Leaf in Tennessee, the first generation of Leafs will come from Japan.  And even when the U.S. factory is in production, the profits will go back to Japan.

So which did I choose?   Tune in to my next blog entry.
My EV of choice and my reasons for choosing it in my next blog post

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You're Getting a What? Is That Like a Golf Cart?

One thing about electric cars (I'll call them EVs from now on, for Electric Vehicles) is that not many people know much about them.  Another thing is that there is a lot if misinformation about them.  So let's see if we can clear some of that up.

Always the first question: How Far Can You Drive?
For the current crop of new EVs the target range is about 100 miles from a full charge.  You'll get less range if you drive aggressively, or if you use the heater or the air conditioning a lot.  In fact, driving at freeway speeds can reduce the range, as well.  So our 92 mile round trip to Culver City to babysit our sweet granddaughter is probably a stretch.

So what good is 75-100 miles?  Well, most of us drive far less than that each day, and one key to EVs is that if you charge at home at night, you'll start each day with a "full tank".  So most trips, including work commutes and daily errands, can be done in the EV.  For longer trips, you'll need your gas powered car, hopefully a hybrid.  It's true that for most families, an EV will need to be your second car.  But for some people, an EV will work well most of the time, and they will rent a gas powered car for their infrequent longer trips.

Making the batteries pollutes a lot and they aren't recyclable, right?
No.  I've read that mining the Nickel in the batteries in most hybrid cars, as well as shipping all of the raw materials, makes hybrids less green than one might hope, but the batteries are recyclable.  The lithium batteries in EVs are less polluting to produce and they have a future after their life in your EV.  Power companies have a need to store power made during off-peak hours, and the used EV batteries will be in demand for that purpose.

Will we see lots of EVs stranded by the roadside due to range issues?
Probably not.  The Leaf, for example, has lots of electronics to keep you informed of how far you can drive with the current battery charge, including a special navigation screen.  It will also show you where you can go to charge your car at a public charging station.

The EV has no tailpipe, but you're still polluting and using oil at the power plant when you charge it.
Not completely true.  Many of the people getting the first crop of EVs also have added solar panels to their homes, and if they make more power than they use, this free, clean power can charge their EV.  That is what we'll be doing at our house.  When we use more power to charge the EV than we make with solar, that power is probably not coming from oil.  In the U.S., we make power from hydroelectric, nuclear, natural gas, wind, solar, coal and a very small proportion of oil.  Now it's true, some of these sources are not clean, especially coal, but I've read several times that it is still cleaner to run an EV charged from a coal fired power plant than to run a car on gasoline.  Also, it is convenient to charge EVs late at night, when the power demands are lower.  This makes power plants run more efficiently.  So much so, in fact, that electricity rates are much lower late at night.

Are EVs slow and pokey, like golf carts?
Not at all.  Torque is the thing that makes cars feel fast, and electric cars have a surprising amount of torque.  Also, and really importantly, all of the torque is available as soon as you step on the "gas"?  That makes EVs feel fast and responsive.  EVs are real cars.  They will move along with traffic, and they are quiet and smooth, without engine vibrations.  Also, since the batteries are usually placed low, under the seats, the center of gravity is low, so EVs handle well.  The Tesla electric sports car can go 0 to 60 mph in about four seconds.  That is very fast.

What's an "Extended Range" EV?
The Chevy Volt is the first example of this type of electric car.  Some people call the Volt a plug-in hybrid, but Chevy likes to call it an EREV, an extended range electric car.  The Volt has a small gasoline engine on board that runs a generator.  The generator makes electricity to drive the car a much longer distance than the batteries alone would allow.  In fact, Chevy says that the Volt will have a range of about 350 miles using the batteries and the range extender engine.

Next Post:  More thoughts on the Volt and the Leaf

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why an electric car?

I mentioned in my first post that I think of myself as a "car guy".  To me, that means that I enjoy driving cars that are responsive, that handle well, and that are fun to drive.  It does not mean that I have to have a big noisy engine, tires that squeal and that I can beat the next guy off the line when the light changes.

In the last ten years or so, I've been interested in choosing cars that are efficient as well as fun to drive.  I'm convinced that we need to do what we can to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide.  I'm convinced that the supplies of petroleum are finite and that easily accessible oil will run short in my lifetime.  I'm convinced that gasoline prices will rise in the coming decade.  I'm convinced that we need to rely less on foreign sources of energy for our own security and to reduce the potential for wars.

Three years ago, I looked carefully for my new car and chose to lease a BMW 328i coupe.  This is one of the smallest BMWs and I chose the smaller of the two engines available in order to maximize the gas mileage.  The best mileage that I ever got in the car was 34 mpg on a long freeway leg.  But it gets less than 18 mpg when I drive around the suburbs.  For my next car, I really wanted to get something much more efficient.  I was looking to at least double my gas mileage while still getting a fun to drive car.  My choices included a Mini, a small diesel Audi, or possibly a new small sport hybrid from Toyota or Honda, or an electric car if one was available by my mid January 2011 timeline.

The other reason that I'm interested in electric cars is that we make a useful amount more electric power than we use with our solar PV system.  We can use that extra power to drive thousands of miles per year with no fuel costs!  Electric cars can drive between three and four miles for every kilowatt hour.  With our extra solar power and our reduced power usage that I spoke of in former blog posts, we should be able to drive close to 5,000 miles per year before we pay for any electricity for our home or our car.  If we drive a further 5,000 miles per year, the electricity cost should be about 2.2 cents per mile, or about one third of the cost to drive our Prius..  And that's LOW cost motoring.  It would be like getting 135 mpg in a Prius or like driving our Prius at its current 45 mpg for $1.00 per gallon of gas.

A small company, Tesla, has shown very clearly that electric sports cars can be exciting, fast and fun.  They introduced their sports car based on a Lotus design in 2008.  But that car costs over $100,000, and it is very small and impractical.  

Mini brought out an experimental electric version of their Cooper called the Mini E that they used to learn about how electric cars would work in the real world.  I got to drive a Mini E courtesy of a friend.  What a fun drive that was!  It really got me thinking about getting an electric car.

It happens that two companies were planning to release an electric car in late 2010, which met my need to find a car around the time when my BMW lease ends in January.  GM will release their Volt in November and Nissan will release their Leaf in December.  I decided that I would look closely at both of these cars to see if one of them was what I was looking for.

Next post:  More about the Leaf and the Volt

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why is this Refrigerator Smiling, and Winking?

Making Your Appliances Work For You

As I looked at the amount of extra power our solar PV system was making and I got interested in using the extra power to fuel an electric car, I became interested in increasing the miles I could drive with clean solar power.  One way would be to add more solar panels.  That would be expensive, probably $4,000 to add enough extra panels to make it worthwhile.  And our solar inverter would need to be replaced or an additional one added to handle the extra voltage, not to mention finding the extra roof space, getting HOA and other approvals, etc.

BUT, using less power is the same as making more power.  The Cash For Appliances program got me thinking about how much less power we would use if we replaced our 20 year-old refrigerator.  I didn't expect it to be much of a power savings, but I was surprised, as you'll see.

Why is this Refrigerator Smiling, and Winking?

As I researched the Cash For Appliances eligible refrigerators, I found that some of the best 25 cu ft Energy Star fridges use as little as 500 kWh per year.  Our 20 year-old 21 cu ft fridge used about 1,200 kWh per year, according to information that I could find on the Internet.  That's a savings of about 700 kWh.  We should be able to drive more than 3 miles for each kWh in the electric cars that are coming soon, so that is over 2,000 extra miles each year that we could drive on clean power by getting a new fridge.

We found that money was still available in the California Cash For Appliances program, and that we could get a rebate of $200 for a qualifying fridge.  We could also get $100 from our electric utility, Southern California Edison, for buying the new fridge and for recycling the old one through them.  We found a great sale price on a fridge that we liked at  Best Buy.  After the rebates, we spent about $1,500 for the new fridge.  Driving 2,500 gas-free miles each year will save us about $165 per year in gas for our Prius, if gas prices stay the same as they are now.  So the new fridge will pay for itself in about 9 years.  But meanwhile, we can drive those miles pollution-free and free of foreign oil.  So we'll be happy with the payback period.  Not to mention that we are really enjoying a terrific new fridge to replace that smaller 20 year-old one.

After having the new fridge for two months, I'm seeing at least as much energy savings as I predicted.  It's possible that the savings will be even greater.  I'm having fun tracking our power usage these days.

Here's a link to the Cash For Appliances program in California.  New types of appliances have recently been added to the program:

Next blog post:  Let's Talk Electric Cars- At Last

More on Living Solar

So, to summarize.  Our solar PV system is working fine, after a few roof issues, and after we made some green choices in our lighting and our habits, we are routinely making about 1,000 kWh of electrical power MORE than we consume each year.  Our Utility, Southern California Edison, will be paying us for the extra power we make.

End of Story?  You don't know me very well, do you?

Tracking our Solar Power
I was excited about our new solar PV system, and when I get excited, sometimes I build a spreadsheet.

I wanted to make sure that our new solar panels were making the amount of power that they were promised to make.  Then I wanted to make sure that they kept making the same amount of power each year going forward.  I found it was easy to track this information, as well as our power usage each day, by taking two readings each evening at sunset:  A reading from our solar inverter and one from our electric meter.

So I've taken and recorded these readings every day for the past three plus years. This is how I've been able to track the gains we've made by greener choices in our home.  And tracking the excess power we make got me excited about using that excess to power an electric car.  LOTS more about that journey in future posts.

Digital Power Tracking
One of my regrets about our solar PV purchase is that our inverter (the box that converts the DC power from the solar panels to AC power to use in our home) does not have the ability to provide data to a computer.  It also shuts off its display when the sun goes down.  So I have to take my readings manually, each day before the system shuts off.  Or else I have to get up early enough the next morning to take a reading before the system makes more power for the day.  I'd LOVE to have a digital capable inverter, but it wasn't available at the time we ordered, at least I didn't know about it.

I'm looking into a TED (The Energy Detective) product to solve this problem.

Influencing and Helping Others
One great thing about being an early adopter is having an impact on the choices of others.  [I know that I'm not really an early adopter for solar electric power.  Many real pioneers have been putting solar panels on their homes, either tied to the electric grid, like ours is, or off-grid, using storage batteries to save the power made during sunny periods for use at night or on cloudy days.  Me and my neighbors are following in the  footsteps of these true early adopters.]  Two neighbors across the street have added solar PV systems to their homes within the two years after we added ours.  I was glad to be an information resource for them and a trail blazer with our HOA architectural committee.

While state incentives are getting smaller, prices for the panels are going down, and federal incentives are now higher.  So it is even more affordable now to go solar than it was when we did it.  There are also financing plans that allow one to gain the benefits of going solar without coming up with the full cost up-front.  I recommend starting your research at Go Solar California:

Next Blog Post:  Can Your Refrigerator Power Your Electric Car?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Things we've learned about Solar

Hi again.  I'm back to blogging after some busy weeks and some fun-filled travel to the Puget Sound area.

Living with a solar PV system is simplicity itself.  You have it installed, set up a Net Metering Agreement with your utility and forget about it.  The system wakes up each morning and puts itself to bed each evening and you don't have to pay any attention to it.  Your electric meter will run backwards on sunny days and forwards at night, and it may even stand still on cloudy days.  When it runs backwards (which is GREAT FUN to watch at first), power is going to the electrical grid for other people and businesses to use.  This is great for your power company and your region, because you are making extra power at times when most people are using it to run their business or their air conditioner, etc., the so-called "peak hours".

The Net Metering Agreement is a good idea if your solar PV system is large enough that you'll make more power than you use during some months.  Basically, the power company monitors your meter each month.  For months when you make more power than you use, they bank those kilowatt hours (kWh) for you.  For months when you use more than you make, they take those kWh out of your bank.  At the end of 12 months, the power company calculates whether you owe them money or whether they owe you money.  You get only one bill or one check each year, except for a monthly bill of maybe $5 for their costs to deliver power to you and monitor your meter.

Living up to the promises: The Solar PV installer companies try to estimate for you how much power your system will make.  This is dependent on several factors, and they have computer programs and experts that make the estimates for you.  The factors are: The number of solar panels you install; The power output (in watts) of each panel; The compass orientation (N, S, E, W) of the roof or other surface where you are installing the panels; The degrees of angle that your roof is from horizontal; any Shading caused by trees or structures during any part of the day; the Latitude and Longitude of your home (which allows them to predict the "insolation" or the amount of sunlight to expect to hit your roof); and Whether or not your system has motors to allow the panels to track the sun during the day (very rarely done because of expense and complexity).

As for compass orientation, the best direction is South for those of us living in North America.  This places the panels facing toward the sun for the largest part of the day.  The next best alternative is West, followed by East, and North, as I am fond of quoting Monty Python is "RIGHT OUT" (meaning if you only have a north facing roof tilt, don't waste your money, such a system won't be cost effective.).  Our main roof faces slightly West of South.  If you don't have a South or West facing roof or if you have major shading of the roof area, you are probably NOT a candidate for solar PV unless you have a large area of ground where you can place a slanted structure for the panels.

Our installer predicted that our system would produce 8,724 kWh of electrical power per year.  Our usage for the previous 12 months was 10,278 kWh, so we would produce almost 85% of our power needs from our system.  In fact, after the first 12 months of use, the system had produced 8,666 kWh.  So the company was very close in their estimate.  Exact predictions are impossible because nobody can predict weather patterns in exact detail.  We learned quickly that cloudy days can make a huge difference.  A rainy, gloomy day can reduce your output to almost nothing for a full day.

Have we gotten Greener?:  Well yes we have.  In 2005 and before, we paid only average attention to our electrical use, turning off lights when we remembered to.  During 2006, we got "the message".  We saw the film "An Inconvenient Truth", and that really got us thinking.  No matter that Bruce Willis showed up on David Letterman that month and joked that he was making a movie called "An Unappealing Hunch", we decided to see what we could do to reduce our energy usage.

By replacing almost all of our light bulbs with compact fluorescent designs, replacing our Christmas lights with LED lights, switching computer CRT screens and TVs to LCD screens, and being more careful with leaving lights on when not needed, we have steadily reduced our usage so that instead of the 10,278 kWh that we used in 2005, we used only 7,051 kWh in 2009.  That is more than a 31% reduction.

As a result, our solar PV system has regularly made at least 1,000 kWh MORE than we have used each year.

What are we going to do with that extra power?  Well, right now, we are selling it back to our power company.  In the first years that we had solar, California didn't require the utility companies to pay us for the extra power that we made and sent to them.  So: THEY DIDN'T PAY US A DIME.  Is there anyone else left out there who still thinks that we don't need government telling companies what to do?  Now there is a law requiring the power companies to pay us for the extra power we make.  So next year sometime, we'll get a check.  It may only be $100 or a bit more, but it's something, and they really do owe it to us.  After all, we are now a power generation station!!

Next Blog:  More insights on Living Solar

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Experience with Our Solar PV System

Our Solar Photovoltaic System Facts:
Size: 24 SunPower panels at 215 Watts each, for 5.16 kiloWatts total
Roof Orientation: South Southwest
Installation Date: January 27, 2007
Peak AC Power Output: approx 4,000 W
Peak AC Power Output for a full sun day: 33 kWh
Our Annual Power Usage: 
2005: 10,278 kWh (base year for system sizing calculation)
2007: 7,738 kWh (year of system installation)
2009: 7,051 kWh
Power Production in Excess of Usage, 36 month total: 3,009 kWh 
Percentage Power Production to Usage, 36 month total: 113.5%
Total Cost Before Incentives and Credits: $39,336 ($7.62/Watt)
State Rebate Paid to Installer: $11,837
Net Out of Pocket Cost before Federal Credit: $27,499
Federal Tax Credit: $2,000 (maximum limit at that time)
Net Cost to Homeowner: $25,499

So how has our solar electric power system worked out for us?  In a word, "Fine".

The installation was completed in a couple of days.  The installers removed our clay roof tiles in the area where the panels would be installed, and they installed a new composition tile roof system below the position of the panels.

Things went smoothly, aside from a few misplaced bolts that we saw poking through our wood beam bedroom ceiling, and a broken window, all of which the installer quickly fixed.  Our utility, SCE, replaced our old electric meter with a new digital one.

Living with a solar electric system is simplicity itself.  We can ignore the system.  It will produce power when the sun is shining, and our electric meter will run backwards.  When it is cloudy or at night, our meter may run forwards or backwards.  The system requires no maintenance or monitoring.  To improve the performance of the panels, they can be cleaned with soap and water perhaps twice per year.

Issues:  Pretty big ones actually.  Before I go into this, I will say that everything is fine now and our installer has taken care of the problems.  We are happy with our system.  We and the installer learned a lot about some roofing issues from our experience, but we certainly had some worries and emotional concerns through the process.

What happened?  RAIN LEAKS!!  Our system was installed at the end of January, 2007.  We woke up on the morning of the first rain storm to find our master bedroom ceiling leaking in 20 places!  Yes, on our bed, on the carpet, everywhere that a lag bolt pierced the roof to hold the panel mounting racks, there was a leak.

We are patient, trusting people, so when the installers sent out a crew to find the leaks and fix them with mastic, we expected that to solve the problem.  It didn't. They came out SEVEN times for attempted repairs before it was fixed.  My poor wife Carol was so disappointed.  It felt to her that we had naively agreed to turn our home over to inexperienced people and that they had broken it.

What was the problem?  The original roof modification plan was poor.  When they put the new composition roof in the area where the tiles were removed, they left the area that was still tiled untouched.  So water ran down the tiles and onto the roof below and got underneath the composition roof tiles that they had installed, then it found its way to the lag bolts that penetrated the roof and the water leaked inside.  Putting mastic into the holes from above did almost nothing.  Carol had anticipated this problem from the beginning, but the company was reassuring, so we went ahead with their plan.  We now know better.

When I finally got tired of letting them try the same solution, I called the president of the company.  Within a few days, a supervisor came out and authorized the repair guys to remove all of the roof tiles and put on a SECOND new composition roof on top of the first one, and to place it edge to edge and top to bottom on the roof.

That finally worked.  There were one or two slight leaks after that, but they were quickly solved.

The moral of the story:  Make sure that the company you choose has experienced roofing experts on the staff.  The electrical part of the installation is important, but our experience is that the roofing piece is more important. And if they suggest an unusual sounding installation, question it until you are completely satisfied that they know what they are doing.

Next blog entry:  Things we've learned about solar.