Tesla Plans to Close the Solar-Electric Car Loop
Can a new integrated rooftop-battery-solar panel change how we live in the future?
Ronald Kaltenbaugh isn't prepping for the apocalypse, but he's pretty close to getting off the grid for other reasons. The 52-year-old network engineer lives about an hour from Washington, D.C., in a four-bedroom home with 69 solar panels, a geothermal heat exchange pump and a garage that houses a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.
The carbon footprint of Kaltenbaugh, his wife and teenage daughter is close to zero, and so is their monthly energy bill (actually the $5.30 a month connect fee, plus about $150 for January and February).
"There's less pollution, and from a money standpoint, it does pay you back," said Kaltenbaugh, who lives in Jefferson, Md.
During sunny months, the solar panels make more energy than the family uses, so they feed energy to their utility and build up a financial credit. During the cloudy, cold months, Kaltenbaugh taps into that credit.
The solar panels also pay for about a third of the electricity needed to run his electric vehicle, which costs the equivalent of 90 cents per gallon to operate and has a 100-mile range.
In fact, across the country, more and more families are linking solar power and electric vehicles for a double-whammy of energy savings. There are about 522,000 EVs on the road, while about 600,000 U.S. households are capturing the sun's energy with rooftop solar panels RELATED: Chinese 'Tesla' Doing Better than Tesla
Somewhere in between is the sweet spot, (or perhaps the shaded part of the renewable energy Venn diagram) that Elon Musk hopes to capture. Musk is the CEO of EV manufacturer Tesla and also chairman of SolarCity, one of the country's biggest solar panel manufacturers and installers.
Musk tweeted that he would be announcing on Friday a "new Tesla/SolarCity solar roof with integrated Powerwall 2.0 battery and Tesla charger." That's a complete roof with solar panels and an electric power storage battery.
On Nov. 17, Tesla plans to acquire Solar City in a shareholder vote.
But will the new renewable energy giant capture solar newbies or even early adopters like Kaltenbaugh? It's not clear yet.
"At some point, as the cost of battery storage comes down, I would consider it," said Kaltenbaugh, who is also president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington. "Its not enough of a benefit right now."
In fact, rather than buying a Powerwall battery from Tesla, Kaltenbaugh says he expects that he will soon be able to use the battery on his own electric car if the electric grid goes out during a storm or demand outage.
All that's missing now is the proper federal and state regulations that would allow a smoother transfer of energy from rooftop to battery to grid, a flow that won't electrocute repair workers during power outages.
While Kaltenbaugh took a DIY approach when he installed solar panels on his home in 2003, many Americans find themselves confused with both the technology and financial equations. That's where Anya Schoolman comes in. She directs the Community Power Network, a non-profit that helps put together co-operative buying groups for solar power in five states and the District of Columbia.
"Every year, more and more people want to do it," Schoolman says about installing solar panels. "The biggest obstacle is they need a new roof and its too much to deal with at once. Others get overwhelmed with decision making, it's just too much. That's what our system does - help them through the information process."
Schoolman and the network have organized 80 co-ops with 1,400 homes in the past few years. Her work in helping low- and moderate-income families go solar has been recognized by the White House.
Solar co-ops are active in several dozen states, while "Solarize" co-ops funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and state governments have organized buyers in other localities.
Schoolman says the average homeowner in her co-op program has an income of $55,000, a far cry from the wealthy, tech-savvy stereotype. "A lot of people are motivated to go solar because they want to save money," she said. "It might take a while to do the payback."
Schoolman is excited about the possibility of adding battery storage to the solar-EV loop and hopes the new Tesla/SolarCity system will be affordable.
"There's definitely a lot of excitement about the future where you could have solar, storage and electric vehicles and they all work together," Schoolman said. "A lot of people are interested to see what Tesla comes up. What we are anxious to see is it become more user-friendly."
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