Is the Chevy Volt way too expensive – a car for well-meaning but well-heeled greenies to make themselves feel good? Or, is it so frugal to own and drive that you cannot afford not to get one?

Those are two extreme views aren’t they? We’ve heard from critics – who often have never even driven one – and who’ve tried to paint negative views, and more recently we heard from Jason King, who says his Volt fits the latter scenario, and is paying him back fast.

King is a writer and photographer living in Maui who figures his driving will soon be effectively “free” due to low-cost solar panels he had installed to keep his car charged.



 

The cost of solar has come way down in recent years, but we know where gas is going, don’t we?

“Gas prices are only going up,” King said. “Gas here is around $5 a gallon, and I drive by just laughing, you know?”

What’s more, King says his Volt is the best automotive value he’s yet had despite not having recouped any federal or state subsidies when he bought it. Being eager to get one early, he bought his Volt in California just two months after GM began production, and shipped it for about $1,000 to Hawaii.

His cost for installing nine extra solar panels to his pre-existing solar array was $5,000, plus he paid $500 for an optional fast charger.

If you have no solar now, you would also need a DC-to-AC inverter and related hardware, so it could be up to double or more compared to what King paid, but this is an investment that would last for many years that would effectively wipe out your gasoline bill, and you may even be able to sell unused electricity back to your local utility.

As for King, he says buying a Volt and solar charging is a good deal even though he forfeited eligibility for a $4,500 Hawaiian state subsidy now available, and the $7,500 federal subsidy.

To others, he says it should also make good financial sense, as they more likely will qualify for federal and state subsidies – for the car, and possible for the solar installation.

King’s estimation that charging costs will soon be no charge takes into consideration what he formerly spent monthly on gas for a Honda CR-V. In nine more months, his Volt will have paid off its lifetime cost to solar recharge, then every electric mile he drives thereafter is effectively free.


Not having a particular affinity for the undesirable effects petroleum has had on the environment and society, King has set up his house to live autonomously yet with high quality of life.

“I was previously spending at least $2,500 a year on gasoline so that means in two years the solar panels have paid for themselves, compared to what I previously spent on gas,” King said. “You know – in terms of the cost of the solar panels to power it. That means in two years my driving is not only pollution free, it’s free.”

The deal was especially sweet where Maui electric rates can hover around 30 cents per kilowatt-hour or more.

King acknowledges everyone’s situation is different, and living entirely off the grid as he does, his environmental commitment is deep, but having researched solar, he does not understand why more people are not doing it – particularly when a less-involved approach of grid tie-in is more financially feasible than ever.

Nor is he alone.

Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug In America says a growing number of people are discovering what it is like to cut or eliminate the electric bill – and even be able to sell energy back to their local utility for a very satisfying turning of the tables.

State-by-state subsidies are available, as is a 30-percent federal tax credit, and so are loans if needed.

Friedland cited others who have realized – like King – that all of a sudden having effectively free kilowatts on hand, they would benefit from buying or leasing an electric vehicle.

Naturally, beyond the cost-benefit analysis, every individual’s motivation is unique. People’s rationales can include preferring their energy to be domestically sourced, and it’s satisfying knowing the money stays at home, instead of paying domestic or foreign oil suppliers. Others point to what it costs in wars and military expense and lives to keep the oil flowing here. Others point to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Others point to being self-reliant and not having to pay for ever-increasing gasoline expense. You can take your pick, or empathize with some or all of the above.


King's off-the-grid living is made possible through readily available technology.

But consumers who are not as ideologically driven want to know they are not paying extra just to support a cause. There are those who want to able to simply justify the outlay, and see a return on investment.

That ultimately depends on a host of variables for your local circumstances, but the good news, says Friedland – and King – is that solar recharging can pay back out-of-pocket costs to switch to solar.

King says his solar power system includes 24 deep-cycle batteries for storage, and a diesel generator backup – which he rarely if ever uses, and he looks forward to when the Volt can be used in a smart grid application as his backup.


Twenty four deep-cycle marine batteries last maybe seven years or so. The rest of the system is much more robust. Battery backup is optional, and not required for more ordinary grid-tied systems.

In any event, his solar panels recharge 100 percent even on a cloudy day, and about the only time he may not generate power is in a torrential downpour.

If anyone thinks solar is only for sunbelt states though, you’d be mistaken. They just need a clear exposure to the sun, and Friedland notes the second largest solar energy usage outside of California is in New Jersey. King observes also that Germany leads the world in solar proliferation.

As for justifying whether it would be worth it for solar electric car recharging, one major factor to consider is how much you spend on gasoline and electricity per year, and factoring the Volt’s electric range and money saved can make a compelling case.

In King’s moderate climate, his Volt’s all-electric range is much better than the EPA-stated 35 miles, and he averages 45-48 miles on a charge. All this to him will soon be effectively free, as he is not even paying a utility for the kilowatt-hours or a gas station.

His reasoning extends also to other electric vehicles with longer ranges, such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubushi i, and other available or soon-to-be models like the Ford Focus Electric or Tesla Model S, and others.


Going well beyond creating enough juice for their car, Norma and Alan Williamson power their California home with photovoltaic panels. We're including this photo to show an example of a more ordinary residence with solar system potentially tied to the grid. This is one of Plug In America's case examples mentioned.

If the vehicle to be charged has a larger battery as pure EVs do, you’d need enough solar energy daily, and a 240-volt level 2 charger, but the math can still work out – while giving a hedge against inflationary gasoline prices.

For his part, King says the Volt makes the most sense because its range meets his daily driving needs – and statistically, those of most Americans – and has gasoline backup when needed. Thus far, he estimates he’s only used about four gallons, and has effectively driven the Volt at 2,000 miles per gallon – with his electricity soon to be paid off as well.

“It’s not just a hype – the lack of range anxiety that I feel having that backup, you know? I mean if it was just pouring rain for few days and I needed to use the electric that my panels were generating for my house; I didn’t want to charge the car,” King said. “So yeah, I can still drive. You know, if I need to drive 100 miles in a day because I have friends visiting and I’m taking them all over the island, no problem, so I’ll drive 100 miles and I’ll use a gallon of gas.”

To determine what state-by-state incentives are available, the Energy Department has an interactive map . You can think also about leasing solar from a company like Sungevity , or others, and as you know the cost of a Volt can also be offset by a presently reasonable lease rates – and this might make sense especially if you do not fully qualify for incentives.

For more information on solar power in general, you can contact a non-profit like the American Solar Energy Society , and the Energy Department has further info worth perusing as well.



 

Besides these resources, there are many others, but they ought to get you started in the right direction.

Calculating cost for solar would also mean factoring in amortization, as the solar array will not last forever, but they are known to last many years even decades.

But if you ask Jason King, he says he has the formula dialed and even if your daily mileage goes a bit over the Volt’s electric range, it still is an elegant solution with no downside.

"The point I want to drive home to people is most people think that they can’t afford to do it,” he said. “I’m living proof that you know what, you can’t afford not to do it. I only have nine months to go until all my driving is free and powered by the sun with no pollution.”