Could our car run on sun?

We have been facing two questions regarding our use of solar energy. The first one seems to have an easy answer, while the second is more problematic.

We have had solar hot-water panels for 10 years. But the orientation of our roof and location of surrounding trees have made it uneconomical for us to get electricity directly from the sun by installing photovoltaic panels.

We have joined Co-op Power, an organization that is building a 500-kilowatt solar array 20 miles north of where we live. Members can buy shares in this photovoltaic installation, which will feed the electricity it generates into the grid.

We would buy virtual solar electricity with a lump-sum payment of somewhere around $1,800 per kilowatt for the life of the facility. Buying four or five kilowatts for about $7,200 to $9,000, we could get the majority of our electricity from a renewable source, and supposedly at much cheaper rates than the utility charges for it. It’s like pre-paying for most of our electricity.

If negotiations between Coop Power and the utility succeed, and there’s no big change in the final price, this seems like a good way for us to support building a renewable energy infrastructure while saving money on electricity.

The second question is more difficult, and Betsy and I have different perspectives. If we’re going to buy virtual solar electricity for our house, should we pay a little more and buy it for our car also?

Toyota makes a Prius that can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet and takes three hours to charge up. You can drive it for about 12 to 15 miles mostly on that power (while generating little exhaust), after which time it turns into a regular Prius hybrid averaging 45 miles per gallon. A reputable used car dealer is selling a 2012 Prius plug-in for $20,000, while a new one costs over $30,000. The electricity powering the car would cost 3 to 4 cents per mile.

I really like the idea of getting the majority of our automotive power from the sun, albeit virtually. I believe the true cost of owning a car isn’t the amount you pay for it but the annual amount by which its value declines, so buying a more expensive car doesn’t waste money in the long run. I don’t want to face the hassle and repair bills of owning our current car in the final third of its usable life.

But Betsy wonders if, for me, a plug-in Prius would be “eco-bling,” something whose coolness exceeds its practicality. She balks at spending $20,000 for a car (and $1,000 in sales tax) when our current one works OK. It’s a 2007 hybrid Prius with 134,000 miles, and we’ve owned it for almost three years. Since we drive only about 8,000 miles a year, our annual savings in gasoline would amount to only about $200, which could easily get cancelled out by higher excise tax and insurance costs. Betsy adds that buying a newer car increases the cost to society in terms of the energy it takes to manufacture it.

I also learned that Toyota is about to come out with a new plug-in hybrid that is lighter, cheaper, and has significantly better fuel economy. Maybe it makes sense to wait, continue to research the options, use our current car a little longer, and consider buying a plug-in, and an additional share in a community solar array, sometime in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Could our car run on sun?

  1. I think the best approach is to wait until that Prius requires a big, costly repair, which might be a long time. Then the Prius turns into a charitable donation and a tax deduction. The cheapest car is always going to be the one you’ve got, so it’s worth waiting until the cost margin is less.
    I believe that there are still nagging environmental questions about hybrid car batteries, how they are produced, and how they are disposed of safely.
    It’s hard to argue, however, with the environmental attractiveness of a car that runs primarily off of solar energy. I don’t think that’s “eco-bling”; that’s the car travel of the future. (We are not going to persuade large numbers of people to give up personal transport in favor of public: dream on.)
    One can conceive of a future in which we charge car batteries not just at home, but also on the road at receptacles (formerly known as gas stations) that provide solar energy.

  2. Pingback: A simple living index | Adventures in the good life

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