Let the Sunshine In: The Rise of Solar EV Charging

By · November 27, 2012

Westport solar charging

Pulling up to the solar pumps at the Westport, Connecticut railroad station. It's electric! And solar-powered, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

If there’s such a thing as a plug-in paradise, it’s something like what I encountered at the the train station in Westport, Connecticut on a recent frosty Saturday morning. Not only was the parking lot abuzz with electric cars, including Teslas, Fiskers and Volts, but they were availing themselves of free electricity from a 27-kilowatt solar display mounted on the station’s roof.

The Solar Connection

Three years in the making, Westport’s solar solution is a model for other American towns and cities to follow. Charging takes four to eight hours at 240 volts, so it makes sense to plug cars in where they’re going to be parked for a while. And it also helps if that location is “intermodal,” meaning connected to another form of travel. Bikes to train stations make sense, and so do electric cars.

According to John Rountree, the solar architect who designed the system, "Though electric cars are clean and don’t emit carbon dioxide, if the energy being used to charge them is being produced by a dirty coal plant, then the environmental side effects are not really being eliminated,” Rountree said. “Solar makes sense because it emits no emissions."

Westport is a wealthy town, the home of man-in-a-gray-flannel-suit New York commuters. But in straitened times it didn’t want to simply buy the rooftop system. And so when a large state grant fell through it turned to a new and popular alternative—solar leasing. A company, in this case Encon/ECI, installs the system at its own cost, and reaps the benefits down the line.

According to town building official Stephen Smith, the driving force behind the plan, “We put out a request for proposals and Encon had the best response. They agreed to install the system and maintain it for 15 years, and in exchange the town agreed to purchase the electricity generated at a 30 percent discount.”

VIP Passes for EV Owners

There are four chargers now, but there will eventually be up to 20 well-located EV spots, set up to accommodate smaller commuter cars. The town is issuing special VIP passes for residents with battery vehicles, and snagging a prime parking space is bound to be an incentive for some people to go electric. It helps that both towns on either side of Westport also have EV charging convenient to the rail line. Though neither is solar yet, at least one of those towns is contemplating adding that component.

Solar charging for electric cars is an idea that just makes so much sense, and the leasing model is a way for cash-strapped communities to avoid out-of-pocket expenses. One big player SolarCity (headed by Elon Musk’s cousin, and with Elon heading the board), has recently not only added EV charging to its leasing model, but expanded operations to the East Coast. It’s great that there’s competition in this field.

SolarCity has installed more than 2,500 EV charging stations so far, including home units. "A rooftop solar energy system can enable you to drive completely emissions free while dramatically reducing your energy bills," the company says, adding that many utilities have special EV rates "that can help you pile on the savings."

Charging the Parking Lot

A company I watch closely is Envision Solar, which has made a specialty of solar charging in corporate parking lots and garages. Dell’s Texas headquarters is a big customer, and so are colleges such as the University of California at San Diego. I’ve visited the latter, and seen solar arrays smartly incorporated into the very accommodating structure of the garage’s flat roof. The system will work even better if it includes battery backup, so power generated during the day can be released at night.

GM's Solar Tracking Tree

GM's Solar Tracking Tree rotates with the sun to capture 25 percent more energy for charging EVs like these Volts. (GM photo)

General Motors is a big believer in charging its Volts on solar, and in September installed what Envision calls a Solar Tracking Tree at its Milford Proving Ground in Michigan. The “tree,” GM’s second, turns to track the sun during the day, increasing its efficiency by 25 percent. The new installation should generate 30,000 kilowatt hours of solar electricity annually, enough to charge six electric cars a day.

GM said it will double its global solar use by 2015, and increase renewable energy use to 125 megawatts by 2020.

High Energi, plus Solar Charging

Also preaching the gospel of solar EV charging is General Electric, which earlier this month announced that it is buying an additional 2,000 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrids to complement its existing orders for 12,000 Volts. At its offices in Plainville, Connecticut, GE not only installed a huge 100-kilowatt solar array with charging for 13 EVs simultaneously, but also said it was getting into the business of selling such charging systems.

GE is partnering with Inovateus to offer complete solar EV chargers, scalable to different needs (from universities to office buildings and sports complexes). I’ve been to Plainville, and trust me on this—solar installations that can charge that many cars at once aren’t small. It’s not surprising they can double as carports. But GE thinks the business case is there.

Selling Cars With Sun Power

In Westport, I ran into a Connecticut Chevy dealer, Leo Karl, who has sold a very respectable 55 to 60 Chevrolet Volts—three of which were circling the parking lot giving test rides. “We’re continuing to see increasing sales momentum,” he said, pointing out lures like Westport’s solar charging (free so far) as incentives. He’s selling more Volts than Corvettes. Volt sales even top the Chevy Malibu, he said.

Greg Taylor, representing another high-toned local dealer that also sells Aston Martins, said that the Fisker Karma is moving briskly. “It’s such a fun car to drive, and a great environmental story,” he said, pointing to dashboard wood salvaged from California wildfires.

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, whose brother was BMW’s electric vehicle guru, said that Westport’s solar installation is “in the vanguard of renewable energy innovation.” I’d agree with that. Let the sunshine in.

New to EVs? Start here

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