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:  http://www.cash4appliances.ca.gov/

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:   http://www.gosolarcalifornia.org/

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