Drive a Solar-Charged Electric Car, Save $263,000 On Fuel Over 50 Years?

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Gas Car Vs Solar Powered Electric Car Costs: 50 Years (P.Norby)

Gas Car Vs Solar Powered Electric Car Costs: 50 Years (P.Norby)

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Critics of plug-in cars like the 2012 Nissan Leaf and 2012 Mitsubishi i often say their high sticker prices are just too expensive to make a sound economic case for making the switch from gasoline to electric. 

Not so, says electric car advocate and BMW ActiveE driver Peder Norby. 

In fact, Norby argues, driving nothing but electric cars for 50 years could save you a massive $263,000 in fuel bills. 

Examining the infrastructure and energy cost included in driving a 20 mpg gasoline car versus installing a 2 kilowatt peak photovoltaic solar array and using energy from it to charge an electric car, Norby passionately states his case. 

For the first year, he points out, a gasoline car costs significantly less to run than a solar-charged electric car, partly because of the initial $8,000 investment in a solar array. 

But as the years roll by, and the solar panels continue to function, the cost of running the electric car drops considerably. 

Robert Llewellyn Nissan Leaf Solar Panels

Robert Llewellyn Nissan Leaf Solar Panels

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Over 50 years, he claims, a solar-powered electric car would cost just $12,000 to run. 

In contrast he explains, the gasoline car would have a net fuel cost of $275,000 over the same period. 

While we agree that over a 50-year period, electric cars will most certainly cost less to run than gasoline ones, there is just one caveat.

Just as range per charge of electric cars is likely to increase over the coming years, so too will gasoline gas mileage -- something not taken into consideration in the calculation.

Since it’s unusual for someone to own the same car for 50 years, we have to assume multiple cars will be owned during that period with each one benefiting better gas mileage compared to its predecessor.

Although that equates to smaller quantities of fuel being used, increasing gasoline prices may negate any benefits improved gas mileage has over the 50 year period. 

But then, by Norby’s own admission, the purpose of his calculations wasn’t scientific accuracy. 

Instead, he points out, the graph is meant to be simple to understand, and to help explain how much cheaper electric cars are to run than gasoline ones. 

“It does not include external cost such as the protection(sic) of oil, propping up oil supplying countries, clean up of oil, environmental or healthcare cost, nor does it include the cost of grid electricity at night when an electric car normally charges,” he writes. “Nor does the graph include the price of the cars themselves. A reasonable argument can be made for both the gasoline car and the electric car as to which will be cheaper to own and maintain for the next 50 years. I’m betting on the electric car.”

We suspect most people will agree with him, although there are bound to be others who disagree


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Comments (20)
  1. Thanks Nikke for covering this issue and my graph. A few things to point out before the barbs fly. The graph is made by me to be simple to understand both in terms of cost and conveyance. Both oil and sunshine begin as free. One is finite one is infinite. One system has a long conveyance and high cost, one system has a short conveyance and low cost.

    The chart is my real world experience with my cars with Solar PV cost in Southern California. The BMW ActiveE in gasoline trim is the BMW 128 which has a combined epa rating of 21 mpg. I rounded down to 20 for same car same car comparison. Of course a Prius or a Ford F350 would give you a different result.

    I am hopeful for a good discussion to follow.

  2. As per usual, overly enthusiastic EV advocates ignore the 800 pound gorilla that makes electric cars more expensive to own : the high cost of batteries. No one knows what batteries will cost down the road, thus any estimates are mostly useless. BUT, right now the Tesla Model S battery pack costs between $20K and $40K
    and probably lasts 8 years, meaning that over a 50 year span will
    have to be replaced (or rebought) many times over, probably negating any cost advantages that might be imagined. Electric cars at this time have many advantages , as they have since before WWI, but lower operating costs isn't one of them.

  3. Hi Ramon,
    Agree to a point. Electric Cars currently have the same or longer power-train warranty that gasoline cars have. It is also expensive to replace an engine-transmission-brakes-exhaust. Batteries are on a serious down curve as far as cost and up curve as far as cycle life. 8-12 years from now replacement cost should be on par or lower than a conventional gasoline drive-train. Thus the last sentence of the article, you can make a reasonable case for both.

  4. I'm expecting my ER-EV battery to last the lifetime of the car. It comes with an 8 year warranty which means they will replace it for free at 8 years if it is below 80% capacity.

    You don't keep the car 50 years - maybe 10 years max. At that point I'd have written down the cost of any car and be selling it for a couple of thousand.

  5. To show the point, I did a comparison graph of an ER-EV and an equivalent Diesel total cost of ownership.

    I took the Vauxhall Ampera and the Vauxhall Astra 2l CDTi Elite - a very similar size and internal specification top of the range diesel car. Diesel and electricity prices are projected based on the same rates of inflation as the last ten years (some say fossil fuel price growth will only accelerate, so this is really a conservative case). The annual costs are based on my own commuting.

    The Ampera total cost of ownership is £20,000 less then the diesel. Even if the battery totally fails on the day the warranty runs out, you could buy a new car and still not lose money.

  6. Battery prices are expected to reduce by 50% in 3 to 5 years...and again by 50% in another 3-5 year period after that.

  7. That's one expensive solar panel system he's got there - panels sell for around $1 per watt and the Feds allow a tax break of $1 per watt, which means the panels have a net zero cost. Micro inverters are running about 75 cents per watt, or $1500 and mounting rails practically nothing. System should cost less than $2000, net, not the $8000 he paid.

  8. Most of us would hire a contractor and pay for an installed system rather than just a wholesale shipping container of imported modules. The IRS allows 30% of actual net cost. Your electric utility will require the system is installed legally. That $8,000 is already earning more on his roof than it would in a bank.

  9. He's got a reasonable estimate. The average residential system in California is $7-$9/watt before rebates. Panels can be found for $1/watt but by the time you add "balance of system" racks, wire and installation, it's way more expensive. I read the average local permit cost was over $2K/system. I did a small system at home, bought panels for $1.40/watt, installed myself and ended up still close to $4/watt before rebates.

  10. Need to do your homework...I paid more for a similar sized system, and it was cheaper than most other contractors (including rebates). If you could get 2 kW system for $2000, everyone would have one!

  11. That is awesome. It is very expensive however to set up a decent sized solar panal array to charge your car but once it's set up you are golden. Also in many municipalities you can sell any excess electricty back to the power grid to help to ofset the costs. Since gasoline is expected to rise in price once the global economy gets on better footing it will make economic sense to invest in an EV. I for one would love a Tesla Model S and I average about 25,000 miles a year and have family in the Twin cities and make 2 to 3 trips per month of greater than 150 to 160 mile round trip. the Nissan Leaf could be used as my wifes car since she doesn't drive as much as I do however I would rather pay a little extra and get the 160 mile+ range.

  12. If you keep up on solar, you will know that by 2015, you will be able to pick up a solar array at Wal-Mart, Targets, and Lowe's, and install them yourself for about the same price each as the cost of your current battery. I can get a battery at Wal-Mart for $50.00, so a four panel solar array will cost me a little over $200.00. You can also get a folding solar array that you can fold up and keep in your trunk so you can charge while sitting in the parking lot at a store or at your business. Charging your car with solar is going to be very very cheap, and in 8 hours, the solar can charge your car to full. -Big savings-

  13. because of the fed tax credit and sales tax waiver in WA state, my Leaf was essentially the same cost as any other $24,000 car. now i had bought a 2010 Prius with special discounting (also tax free!!) and it turned out to be slightly more expensive. (it was $31,000 list but discounted to 28,500 so total out the door cost was about 28,800)

    now driving the Prius is costing me about $105 a month and currently is covering 60% of our transportation needs (it will be less than half during summer) the Leaf is costing me about $22-25 a month.

    first glance; saving $80 a month in fuel costs over the most efficient gas car on the road. but the Prius is doing 60% of the load so we would make it about say $70 i am saving.


  14. (part 2) but that is only the beginning of the savings. we will ignore the maintenance costs (about $100-150 per year higher) and look at the hidden benefits.

    the Prius is like any gas car. it really suffers when used for short trips and that is multiplied in winter. but those types of trips have been reduced by over 90%.

    the Leaf may have a much lower range in winter, but its per mile performance is only slightly less when no climate control is used. now i rarely use it since it is tolerable here but my family cranks it, so you can still expect a lowered performance but nothing resembling a 20 mpg trip in a 50 mpg Prius (which was common for us!)


  15. (part 3) this past winter, the lowest gas prices got to was $3.219. that is a record for WA (we have pretty high gas taxes) last fill up was $3.359 and many are predicting gas prices to go to $4.50 to $5 a gallon. i will be getting gas for the Prius in the next few days and its looking like its gonna be in the low $3.40 range. its kinda hard to say because its gone up 1-2 cents twice this week (get gas at Costco because its the cheapest)

    but any long term analysis using gasoline prices at what is going to be bargain rates in a few weeks over a 10 year period is a bit strange.

    yes, we still have the big unknown battery replacement cost but by driving electric today i am basically banking at least $1500 a year towards a replacement...

  16. Great summary David! In many place electricity rates are cheap (hydro states) so going electric is a great deal on utility supplied electricity.

  17. I see that the cost of new inverters is included but not the cost of new panels. Over 50 years I'd expect to have to replace the panels once or at the very least, augment them with some additional panels to make up for the fall off in performance.

    Additionally, I have been looking at local storage using lead acid batteries to allow you to truly use the electricity you generate in the day to charge the EV at night.

    I found some lead acids from Elecsol which are designed to have 3x the cycle life of normal lead acids. These should allow you to get 12 or 13 years use from a properly sized system. Over that 12 years I calculate that you are no worse off than buying off-peak electricity back from the grid.


  18. This is just a stupid article. To say a gas powered car will get 20 mpg 20 years from now is laughable. Neither a Leaf or a regular gas guzzler car will last 50 years without major repairs. The Leaf's batteries are good for 10 years tops. Solar Panels are rated to last 20 to 30 years. I am all for Electric cars but this is just junk science.

  19. jmaximus, I expect both gas and electric vehicles to become more efficient. The graph only applies to fuel. I would expect over 50 years for there to be several cars.

  20. Two things to check on this article... the cost of the PV system is usually higher, the generation may be lower....and the utility charges you a monthly fee as you are required to be hooked up to the grid and take electricity from the grid (if you generate more than you get a credit for difference of generation vs. use....which is usually pennies/kWh...way below what you pay to use electricity). So this calculation is overly optimistic.
    Note also, expected monthly fees for PV customers are to increase as evidenced by recent applications by utilities to regulatory agencies. PV savings are a moving target.

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