Driving on Sunshine

The pieces finally came together: I bought a plug-in hybrid car (Chevy Volt) and installed a new set of solar panels on the garage roof.

I’m driving on sunshine!

The Volt looks and drives like any other car, just quieter, and it costs about what a new car ought to cost.  With a full charge, the first 40 to 45 miles are all electric.  After that, a gasoline engine kicks in and I get about 39 miles per gallon.  If I lived in town I would probably use no gas at all.

The car is great – I love it – but it’s not the final answer.  For any kind of road trip it turns into the same old fossil dinosaur we’re trying to get away from.  The range just isn’t enough, and I still end up burning gas.  But I think we’ve turned a corner.  The hybrid technology will get better – batteries will improve and range will get up over the hundred-mile mark, maybe way over.  More charging stations will show up and charging times will diminish.  It will take a while for the infrastructure to come into place, and a while before we can get away from the gasoline backup, but this is a technology that we can trust.  It works.  I can go anywhere in this car. We’ve turned a corner with this technology because not only can we trust it, we can afford it.  Electric motors are much cheaper to operate and maintain than gasoline engines.  Only five moving parts: the drive shaft and four wheels.  No belts, carburetors, valves, pistons, pumps, distributors, or spark plugs.  No transmission.  Even the gas engine of a plug-in hybrid is simpler: all it does is charge the battery.  It’s not connected to the drive train so it doesn’t have to operate at a wide range of rpms like a conventional automobile engine.  It just kicks in – seamlessly – when the car is already moving.  Because electric motors are so much more efficient, the cost of the electricity itself is much cheaper than gas, even without solar.  If I charge up at a friend’s house, a full “tank” of electricity costs a little over a dollar – that’s less than 3 cents a mile!  You’re probably paying five times that much for gas. 

That’s the part that scares me.  The electric car is going to happen because it’s cheaper.  Market forces will steer us in this direction.  But the plug-in car is only half the way toward driving on sunshine.  If we go electric without going solar we will end up burning less gasoline but more coal and natural gas to make the electricity.  That would be a little better because the efficiency factor would still be there – we would need less coal and natural gas to get the same mileage – but we would still be burning fossil fuel to run our cars.  We would still be in the hole we’re trying to get out of, only digging it deeper at a slightly lower rate. That’s not good enough.  To survive the climate crisis we are will have to make changes that do not save us money.  We will have to choose life whether or not it is cheaper than the alternative.

We will have to choose solar no matter how expensive it is. If we have to pour billions into research and development for cheaper, more efficient, and more universally applicable systems of collecting and storing solar energy, we will do it.  If it costs the hundreds of billions of dollars that we are now investing, as a society, in fossil fuel infrastructure, we will do it.  If we have to put solar collectors in low-Earth orbit, we will do that, too.  If civilization continues to use energy beyond muscle power we will have to go solar in a big way – a really big way.  There are other sources of renewable energy, but the big one is the sun.

We will have to go solar no matter what, but it will turn out to be easier than we thought.  There’s going to be a convergence of survival and economic interests.  The new solar panels I put on my garage roof cost about a fifth as much as the ones I put on my house seven years ago.  The inverter is a little cheaper, too.  It harvests more energy than the old one and has an emergency power outlet that I can switch on in a black out.  (Until this year, grid-tied inverters would automatically shut off when the grid went down.)  Solar technology is becoming better and less expensive even as it becomes more essential to human civilization.  It may be cheaper, after all, to choose life. That part doesn’t scare me a bit.

I’m only getting the first 40 miles or so on sunshine, and I don’t yet see many charging stations at the stores and restaurants I go to, but I think we’re over the hump.  I think it’s going to happen.  Soon we will all be driving cars without any carbon fuel at all.  It’s going to boom.  We can do this thing.

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