One of my oldest childhood dreams is now a reality – and more!
That dream was to one day drive an electric vehicle that was charged with electricity provided by the sun.
After originally dreaming up the idea in Mr. Jackson’s 6th grade science class way back in 1980*, then pondering, dreaming, and researching the idea for many decades until recently, with the convergence of technologies over the last few years, and by working with great friends, nonprofit supporters, patrons and my amazing students – I have finally made that boyhood dream come true for me and, most importantly, for my students – who are the next generation. Our children are the generation that will benefit the most from these coming of age technologies – technologies that they will soon come to see as normal and as every day as we kids of the last generation viewed the internal combustion engine, land-line telephone, film camera, CD, and MTV. *Read all about my 6th-grade epiphany in this blog post I penned on my nonprofit blog.
Now, over 35 years later, I am finally daily driving an electrically driven vehicle whose battery is charged with locally grown electricity from the sun – and a good chunk of water and wind produced renewably generated electricity! I use this renewable energy fueled electric vehicle for commuting to and from work, as an outreach vehicle for my nonprofit environmental education organization – Earthshine Nature Programs – and as a teaching tool in my middle and high school science classes where I work to demonstrate working models of the “new normal” of these now off-the-shelf technologies to the young minds who will lead us forward into a clean, renewable energy powered, and electrically driven future!
How did all this happen?
We quickly came to dearly love the little electric car, and for the first 4 years of EV ownership, we charged the vehicle using the local grid provided energy mix. In 2017 this all changed when my classroom’s new 4.8 kW photovoltaic solar array went online.
Now I charge my EV almost every day with sunlight!
The data I have outlined below reveal that 48% of the power I used to charge EV’s drive battery over the period of this study came directly from solar produced, renewably generated, clean electricity produced by the 4.8 kWh photovoltaic solar array at my classroom/office where I charge on weekdays.
Due to the logistics of driving an early, short range, EV – the other 52% of the power needed to get me around during the time of this study came from the local power grid’s energy mix.
That energy mix is not perfect but it could be much worse. As of only about a decade or so ago it was provided by electricity generated primarily by burning coal – the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. As it stands today our local energy mix is a blend of coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, nuclear, and wind (more or less in that order).
This 52% of my electric vehicle’s electron fuel originates from the local energy mix which I source from various 120 volt standard electrical outlets at my private residence and at the homes of friends, and the readily available Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) – aka car chargers – network located all around my “home range.” (Home range = the area in which I spend the majority of my time.)
When on the road I always try my best to use EVSE that are in close association with, or not far from solar or other renewable energy power sources in the attempt to keep my car’s electric fuel as clean as possible.
But how does all this work you may ask?
First, let us look at the solar side of things.
It all starts with our nearest star – the sun. Sunlight, which is made up of photons – that can take up to as long as one million years to be produced inside the sun – is produced by our nearest star then zip through space at the speed of light and around 8 minutes later strike my classroom’s photovoltaic solar array – that’s my classroom in the below photo taken by the ENP solar charged camera drone.
The photons are then converted into direct current (DC) electricity by an almost magical process that takes place within in the blue semi-conducting solar cells contained within the 20 solar modules that currently* make up the array. After the electricity is produced in the solar modules it travels (again at the speed of light) via wires to the SMA Sunny Boy inverter where it is modified from DC current into AC current and sent into the building’s power grid. From the there it travels via more wiring to a Clipper Creek Level 2 EVSE. *I say currently because we are now working on raising funds to complete Phase Two which will add 10 more solar modules to our classroom solar array powering the entire building and the EV with solar! Learn more about how you can help us make this happen for our classroom and nonprofit on our Patreon page or on our GoFundMe page.
From the EVSE the energy then travels along a cable into my 2012 Nissan Leaf and charges the car’s battery with clean, locally produced, renewable solar electricity.
No dirty, toxic, life-destroying fossil fuels needed for this configuration.
Sunshine + Science + EV + Willpower + Determination + Generosity +Hard Work = a Solar Driven Electric Vehicle!
Renewable energy + EV’s are the “new normal” and they offer all of us freedom from the subscription to dependency that is fossil fuels.
Although I have been daily charging my 2012 Nissan Leaf in this manner since mid-July 2017, this report will only cover a 4-month time-frame between August and November of 2017. At the end of 1 year, I will recalculate and we will take a look at the changes.
I only live about a dozen miles from my classroom/office and during the week I always charge my Leaf at work. After work and on weekends I often travel around the area for work and play so I must occasionally plug my Leaf into a standard power outlet on my carport at home or use the many conveniently located community Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) public charging stations* that are powered by other local energy sources – and some of these energy sources are not as clean as our favorite neighborhood star. For these logistical reasons, my Leaf is not entirely powered by the sun – at least not yet. *see map below and visit Plugshare to learn where there are EVSE near you.
The local charging station network as of the writing of this post. The blue dot is approximately (but nowhere near exactly for security reasons) where I live.
So, how do I know my Leaf is 48% solar powered?
To answer to that question I took a deep look at my “Leaf Log” – a charging status and usage journal that I have been keeping of my daily charging/driving activities since day one of EV ownership.
I compared my Leaf Log with the daily power production logs from my classroom’s SMA Sunny Boy Inverter and cross-referenced those with the power usage records from Duke Energy – my grid power provider.
Time period covered: August 01- November 30, 2017.
Total solar array production to November 30th: 1.36 MWh
Average monthly solar production over the time period: 280.45 kWh
Average daily solar production over the time period: 9.34 kWh
Total number of times the Leaf was fully charged* using solar produced electricity over the time period: 65
*I only recorded data for days where solar production equaled or was greater than the kWh needed to fully charge my Leaf EV.
Total number of times the Leaf was charged at home over the time period: 47
Total number of times the Leaf was charged with local energy mix* over the time period: 53 *Our local energy mix includes a mix of Coal, Natural gas, Hydroelectric, Solar, Nuclear, and wind more or less in that order. From: https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/#tabs_unit-1
Number of kWh from the cleanest solar produced electricity (my classroom solar array) over the time period: 535.19 kWh
Number of kWh from the local energy mix over the time period (home+other local EVSE): 687.3 kWh
Number of kWh sourced from Level 1 home charging: 357.3 kWh
Number of kWh from all other sources outside of solar/home: 330 kWh
Total kWh used by EV over time frame: 1222.49
It is important to note that my home energy mix is supported by wind power carbon offsets through Arcadia Power. This is significant because when I charge my Leaf at home, the energy used to charge its battery, while being physically generated by the local energy mix, has its carbon pollution offset by the construction and operation of wind farms which serve to lower my EV’s carbon footprint even more!
Number of kWh from wind energy offsets used to charge my Leaf at home over the time period = 357.3 kWh
Now let’s take a look at the local energy mix.
The total kWh sourced from the grid mix over the time period = 330 kWh.
Total kWh electricity sourced from EVSE in close proximity to renewably produced energy from home range grid mix over the time period = 97.3 kWh
Number of kWh from known renewable energy augmented EVSE stations*: 51.9 kWh * Solar BrightfieldTS EVSE at UNCA/Asheville Public Works BrightfieldTS solar EVSE/EarthFare BrightfieldTS EVSE/Sierra Nevada Brewery/WCU BrightfieldTS EVSE/Cherokee Welcome Center solar/wind EVSE
Total kWh used from charging the Leaf adjacent to the dirtiest EVSE* in our local energy grid over the time period = 27.2 kWh *Note: I refer to this as the dirtiest EVSE in the area as it is less than a mile from and within sight of the largest local fossil fuel-fired electricity power plant in the area – as you can see from this image.
Total energy used by EV over time period: 1,221.77 kWh
1041.69 + 180.08 = 1221.77
Total kWh from known clean energy sources over the time period: 1,041.69 kWh
535.19(classroom solar) + 51.9(RE EVSE) + 357.3(home wind offests) + 97.3 (near RE) = 1041.69 kWh
Total kWh from fossil fuel generation sources: 180.8 kWh
153.6 + 27.2 (fossil fuels) = 180.8
My calculations suggest that, over the time period in question, the LEAF received 85.3% of its energy from renewable energy sources via either local sources or via carbon offsets. The remaining 14.7% of its energy came from local fossil fuel-fired generation sources.
So it seems that if my maths are correct (and please do correct me if you find an error) that my data and calculations suggest that during the time period in question my Leaf was 48% solar charged and 52% grid mix charged with 37.3% of that grid mix being sourced from renewable energy sources.
During the 48% of the time my Leaf was solar charging at my classroom – it was, in fact, receiving its electrons from the sun.
The other 52% of the time, while it is reasonable to deduce that my EV received 37.3% of its energy from renewable energy sources – it is more complicated to pinpoint the exact energy sources for my vehicles electron fuel. This is due to the nature of nature, the nature of the electric grid, the loads on the grid at any given time, the nature of electrons, and my varied locations when charging.
Nonetheless, if the numbers and my calculations are accurate then it is reasonable to say that my little EV is truly a “green” Leaf and, for its specific situation and use – it is as clean as it can possibly be when compared to vehicles powered solely by internal combustion engines that receive all of their energy from carbon-based fossil fuel sources. These results make me very happy by giving me the knowledge that I am doing as much as I am able to do to shrink my carbon footprint and I am working to share my findings with the next generation.
I am also fully and acutely aware that everything we do has an impact on our shared earth – from the manufacturing process of the vehicle, EVSE, solar array, and all the parts that tie it all together – these all have their own unique carbon footprints. I am also fully aware that all grid-based energy supply networks – from the dirtiest coal or diesel-fired power plant to the cleanest hydro, wind or solar sourced renewable energy installation also have their own areas of inefficiency and loss that compounds to lower their carbon footprints – so no, there is no such thing as a 100% carbon-free human-made energy source and there will always be some losses in the manufacturing processes, in the power delivery along the way to you, and in the final use of that power by you, the user. I am not here to debate those things nor am I hear to claim that I have all the answers. What I am here to do is share with you the ways I have discovered that you can make use of to lower your personal carbon footprint by using renewable energy and electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf in your everyday lives. Those other, larger issues – we common folk have little control over – but those issues will improve as our technology improves. For those improvements to happen we need to vote strong scientific minds into offices of power and we need to vote with our money in support of renewable energy projects, electric vehicles and their support infrastructure, and better efficiency in our homes, schools and workplaces and maybe then, by working together, we can work to make our collective impacts on our fragile ecosystem as low as possible for the benefit of us all and for the benefit of everything moving forward.
The 149.2 kWh of RE generated/augmented electricity sources used to charge my EV varied depending upon where I plugged into the grid, was it sunny, overcast, windy, what was the ambient temperature etc. Although I am not 100% sure on any of the following I will take a stab at hazarding an educated guess.
Looking at the below map you will see two polygons. These represent my daily home range and the electricity generation sources located therein. I spend around 90% of my time within the area of the yellow polygon while the green polygon represents the extended home range that I visit around 10% of the time. Note: the Duke Energy power plant located just north of center of my primary home range is listed on the map as a Natural Gas Power Plant – however, that listing is misleading as it is, in reality, a “Conventional Steam Coal; Natural Gas Fired Combustion Turbine with Net Summer Capacity by Energy Source: Coal = 378 MW, Natural Gas = 320 MW.” – so it is currently not as “clean” as it is reported. The Oconee Nuclear power station, the closest one to my location, is just off the southern edge of the map to the left of Liberty, SC.
On the next map, we see all of the locations where I frequently charge my car and their locations in relation to the local power grid’s energy production sources.
The L1 and L2 EVSE in the lower left of the yellow polygon are clustered around my home and office. My home is located midway between the Duke energy coal/gas plant and a large clustering of hydroelectric power plants to the west. At first glance it appears that around 50% of my home’s electricity may be provided from this renewably generated clean hydroelectricity – however, those hydroelectric generation stations are on a different circuit so I am therefore unable to take advantage of their much cleaner hydroelectricity. Although my home circuit’s power grid is fed mostly by a mix of coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar more or less in that order – however, when we take into account the renewable energy offsets I receive from Arcadia Power my home energy mix becomes MUCH cleaner!
When I am in the northern part of my most frequented home range I usually charge at solar assisted EVSE locations located in downtown Asheville at the BrightfieldTS solar assisted EVSE stations located on College St., on the campus of UNCA, at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, or at the Earthfare Grocery store in South Asheville. These EVSE stations receive a large portion of their power from solar energy so, if an EV is charging during the day it is solar charged. When an EV is not charging, these EVSE then feed clean solar produced electricity back into the power grid. I can, therefore, hypothesize that when I charge at these locations (on sunny days) I am driving on sunshine and my car’s electron fuel is potentially as clean as when I solar charge at my classroom.
Charging on sunshine on the campus of UNCA
When I drive out of my most frequented home range area and into my extended home range (the area within the green polygon) not only is the majority of the electricity in that area provided by clean hydroelectric generating stations, but on top of that, whenever possible I charge at EVSE locations that are relatively close to hydroelectric, solar/wind* augmented generating stations. It is interesting to note that the EVSE on the campus of Western Carolina University is also fueled by a solar canopy as seen below.
This EVSE is also very close to the nearby Electron Garden , a small campus solar farm seen in the following photo, as well as being located “downstream” from several hydroelectric power generating facilities that produce close to 50 MW of clean hydro-generated electricity – so these facts suggest that this is indeed a very clean EVSE!
Another EVSE I use frequently is located at the Cherokee, NC welcome center in Cherokee, NC. This EVSE is powered by a mix of hydroelectric, solar, and wind generated electricity. The building (pictured below) is attached to a hydroelectrically energized power grid and it has two solar “trees” plus a small-scale wind turbine on site that generates even more clean energy from the sun and wind.
This clean energy is then fed directly into the building’s grid and the three EVSE located in the parking area. If an EV is charging then its batteries will be solar, wind, and water power charged.
My Leaf charging at the Cherokee Welcome Center.
On a few occasions, I am forced, due to my Leaf’s limited range, to charge at EVSE located very close to coal-fired generating facilities. On these occasions, my car is fueled with clean electrons produced by dirty energy generation stations. The good thing is that these occurrences are rare and totaled only 27.2 kWh of my total energy usage during the time period under study.
I have arrived at my conclusions based on data from my home range map, charging history data from the “Leaf Log,” and knowledge of the local electricity providers power generating facilities and their service areas.
Even with the gray areas in the numbers this 85.3% renewable energy provided fuel is far and above cleaner and more energy secure and has a significantly lower carbon footprint than anything out there on the roads that runs on any liquid petroleum fuel.
In fact, even if I did not have a solar generating station at my classroom/office, or use Arcadia Power for carbon offsets, or charge at renewable energy powered EVSE – my Leaf would still average around 73 mpg equivalent*. This is due to our country’s grid mix continuing to get cleaner every day with the retirement of aging coal fired power plants and their replacement with cleaner natural gas and much cleaner renewable energy power stations! *From the Union of Concerned Scientists EV Emissions Calculator found here: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/electric-vehicles/ev-emissions-tool#z/28768/2012/Nissan/LEAF (24 kWh)
This data is based on the following chart of the US energy mix as of March 2017.
North Carolina’s Energy Mix
Now let’s look take a deeper look at my local energy mix. The energy mix is just that – a mix of different energy sources all working together to provide us with reliable power for our homes, businesses, schools, and for a growing number of us – our electric transportation choices.
Traditionally, North Carolina was powered mostly by mostly coal but over the last couple of decades, we have seen a slow but steady growth in renewable power – especially since 2010. Since then NC has gone from near the back of the parade to #2 in the country for installed solar power! Solar now provides NC residents with ~3.57% of our energy mix coming from the sun as well as over 3000 MWh of installed capacity – enough to power over 341,000 homes – and on top of that solar provides over 7,100 North Carolinians with great jobs and in the process, our energy mix just keeps getting cleaner!
Evidence of this can be seen in the below map image of NC’s current solar (hydroelectric and nuclear) situation! (Note: yellow stars=grid scale solar power generation facilities, Blue=hydroelectric, purple=nuclear.)
This trend is happening all over the country as evidenced by this amazing graphic from this UCS article.
As of May 2016, the USA had installed 1 million solar installations – including around 950,000 rooftop solar arrays! (Source: http://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/one-million-solar-energy-systems-now-turned-on-in-us )
Many more solar and wind generating facilities are planned for the 2018 year as can be seen in the map below.
It is wonderful to see the fall of dirty “King Coal” with no new coal-fired power stations going in and the rapid growth of renewable power generation nationwide. What this means is cleaner air, cleaner water, and a cleaner future for all of us, for nature, for wildlife, for our children, and for the children of the future.
It also means that even when we charge our EV’s on only local grid power they will ALWAYS be cleaner and have less of an impact on our environment than ANYTHING powered by petroleum products (source). Furthermore, with more and more new grid scale and private renewable energy generation facilities going online, the grid just continues to get cleaner – so every time we charge our EV’s anywhere – the electrons fueling our vehicles also just continue to get cleaner.
This is a win-win situation for all of us…well, unless you are still driving around in an old fossil burner because, as we all know, their fuel source can never be made clean and on top of that as they age their efficiency drops as their multitudes of moving parts wear out with use only causing them to pollute more and more.
Below a wonderful sign of the times from the Sunday funny papers 🙂
I almost forgot to mention that when I looked at how the numbers have changed when it comes to my fuel costs to push my Nissan Leaf EV down the road – the new solar array has lowered my costs by, you guessed it, almost half of what I was paying in the past. My previous costs of operation for my EV’s electric fuel were around $30/month and now, with my classroom solar array online and charging my car with sunshine, I can now drive my average 1200 miles/month for about $15 – that works out to a little more than 1 cent per mile to fuel my EV!!!
That my friends is the ultimate smackdown to petroleum-based fuels.
I could not be happier.
Thank you to everyone who worked with me to make this dream a reality!
You are all HEROES!