This image is a still from a video created by SunPower. The video is at the bottom of this article.

It’s the Earth lover’s dream-come-true: an electric car that’s powered by the sun!

In late 2011, SunPower announced partnerships with Ford and Nissan regarding the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf. A year and a half later, a small number of these electric car owners are pursuing this option. Some believe that it not only makes sense for the environment, it could actually make sense for them financially.

On the homes of Focus Electric and Leaf owners, SunPower is able to install solar energy systems that involve approximately 150 square feet of solar panels. Each system is able to generate enough electricity to power an electric car. SunPower stated that each 2.5-kilowatt system produces about 3,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, which they claim would be enough juice to power a Focus Electric for 12,000 miles and a Leaf for 10,000 miles.

These claims seem realistic, if not conservative. “In California, with proper tilt and orientation (South on a 5/12 roof) and good exposure, a 2.5-kw system would produce 3,200-4,000 kWh,” Tim Hamor of Alternative Energy Systems, Inc., told us via email. “I am guessing SunPower is proposing 3,000 kWh because it aligns better with national averages.” Nissan Leaf drivers get close to 4 miles per kWh, which equates to close to 12,000 miles on 3,000 kWh.

The thought of a sun-powered vehicle is extremely intriguing. No longer do car owners have to rely on energy sources that are both nonrenewable and damaging to the atmosphere when burned (i.e., oil and coal). The solar panels absorb sunlight during the day and feed the energy to the city’s electric power grid, and the car is charged (taking energy from the grid) at night, when electricity rates are cheapest. The solar-powered Focus Electric and Leaf are, in effect, oil-free, coal-free, guilt-free cars—and those that reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

In 2011, critics were alarmed by the cost of solar-powering a Ford Focus Electric. The car retailed for $39,995, the SunPower system cost $14,000, and a home charging station was approximately $1,500, bringing the total to about $55,500.

But before you say fogettaboutit, you need to look at all the numbers—especially with the Nissan Leaf, which, after a big price drop, retails at $28,800 for 2013. When you throw in the other savings—in gas, maintenance costs, tax credits, rebates, and other incentives—the bottom line is actually surprisingly low. Let’s crunch the numbers . . .

Thinking Long-Term: The Real Cost of a Solar-Powered Nissan Leaf

Let’s start with the retail price of the Leaf ($28,800) and add the original price of the SunPower system ($14,000) and the cost of the charging station ($1,500). That puts you at $44,300.

But now come the savings, and they’re massive:

Federal tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle: $7,500

Federal tax credit for buying the solar energy system: Thirty percent off the cost of the system, which equates to about $4,200.

Federal tax credit for the home charging station: Thirty percent of the cost of the charging station, or $450.

Savings on gas after 100,000 miles (if you drive it that far): We estimate the cost of gas savings to be $12,900, based on $4/gallon x 29 mpg, which is the EPA’s estimate for the 2013 Focus hatchback with automatic transmission (a car that’s similar to the Leaf). Remember, you are not, in net terms, paying for electricity; it’s being generated by the sun.

Savings on maintenance after 100,000 miles: approximately $1,000 (no oil changes, transmission flushes, etc.)

Various incentives from state, county, and city governments for purchasing an electric vehicle: These incentives can be as little as free parking to as large as four-figure tax credits. Only a few states offer truly significant incentives, and Colorado is one of them. That state offers a $6,000 tax credit for those who purchase an electric car. For a state-by-state breakdown of electric-vehicle incentives, go to http://www.pluginamerica.org/incentives.

Various incentives from state, county, and city governments for purchasing a solar energy system: These vary greatly and are difficult to estimate. Most states offer tax breaks, low-interest loans, grants, or other incentives. A few states offer rebates, worth up to thousands of dollars, to purchasers of solar energy systems.

Total savings (not including state, county, and local credits): $26,050 ($32,850 in Colorado).

So when you subtract $26,050 in savings from the $44,300 that you’re shelling out for the Nissan Leaf, SunPower system, and charging station, you’re down to $18,250—or $12,250 if you live in Colorado. That’s a pretty sweet deal for a new car. In March 2013, the average transaction price of a new vehicle in the U.S. was $31,156.

Thus, the basic math indicates that a solar-powered electric vehicle can make financial sense. However, other factors go into the equation.

Cons and Pros About Buying a Solar-Powered Nissan Leaf

Cons . . .

Finance charges:
 Few of us have $44,300 in cash to plunk down on a new car and a solar energy system. If you finance the bulk of this sum, you would pay several thousand dollars in interest.

Sales tax:
 The sales tax, at an 8 percent rate, on a $28,800 vehicle is $2,304, compared to $1,600 on a $20,000 car.

Range limit and range anxiety: The EPA pegs the 90-percent range limit of the Leaf at 75 miles, though that will go down significantly if you blast the heat or A/C. If your daughter had a swim meet 40 miles away, you couldn’t take the Leaf. An electric vehicle is much more practical if you or your family has more than one car.

Remembering to charge: Charging an electric vehicle is easy—you just plug it in. But you have to be diligent about it. If you rely on an EV for your daily commute but forgot to plug it in the previous night, you could be stranded.

That’s “maximum” tax credit: You need to owe $7,500 in federal taxes in order to get the full $7,500 tax credit. Typically, only Americans in the upper middle class and up owe that much.

Dark clouds: While SunPower lists 3,000 kWh as an average for a 2.5-kilowatt system, that “average” doesn’t help you if you live in a cloudy area. Efficiency can suffer by more than 50 percent on cloudy days. You wouldn’t have to worry if you lived in super-sunny Phoenix, Arizona, which gets only about 70 cloudy days a year. But you’d be short on power if you lived in chronically cloudy Seattle, Washington, which averages more than 200 cloudy days a year.

Pros . . .

Save more if gas prices soar: If you drive the Leaf for 100,000 miles and gas averages $4.50 per gallon over that time, you’d save an extra $1,600 above the $12,900 that we estimated for $4 gas.

Big miles = big savings: If you put well over 100,000 miles on your Leaf—which admittedly is hard to do since you can’t drive it long distances—you could really save some money. Over 140,000 miles, the owner of a Leaf would save $18,060 in gas (at $4/gallon) compared to the driver of a conventional-engine 2013 Focus. This is a significantly bigger difference than the $12,900 you’d save after 100,000 miles. Note that Nissan’s battery warranty for the Leaf is 8 years/100,000 miles.

You’re not committed: If, after a year or two, you feel that an EV is not for you, you could sell the Nissan Leaf (which likely would have a high resale value) and use the solar energy to help power your home.

Cash in during the 2020s: Most solar panels have 25-year warranties, so you know what that means: Once your current Nissan Leaf goes kaput, you could power your next EV on free sunshine, too (provided you’re still in the same house in the 2020s!). You could save close to $20,000 in gas over the next 15 years.

Increase in property value: A 2011 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory revealed that solar panel systems had increased home prices in California by an average of $17,000. While SunPower’s 2.5-kw system isn’t large enough to power the average house, it likely would add a few thousand dollars to your home’s value.

Admittedly, going with a solar-powered car is a big commitment. You’re adding solar panels and a charging station to your home, you’re restricting your driving range, and you have to be diligent about charging. Yet for many people, the commitment makes financial sense.

Then there are the environmental advantages. Some analysts predict that the world could essentially run out of oil by the middle of this century. Moreover, the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal) contributes to global warming, which leads to more extreme weather and rising sea levels—likely several feet by the end of the century, and possibly more.

Across the planet, charging on sunshine may not only be a nice Earth-friendly alternative. Eventually, it may be one of our only alternatives.

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