Chevy Volt Owner Says He’ll Soon Be Driving For ‘Free’

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 in cases have never even driven a Volt – 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. In short, what he paid to install solar recharging is around what he used to pay for a couple year’s worth of gasoline, and soon, he reckons, it will all be gravy.

If you’ve not heard, 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 paid extra to get it, then forfeited eligibility for a $4,500 Hawaiian subsidy now available, and $7,500 federal subsidy.

To others, he says even though they’ll have out-of pocket expenses, it might very well make good financial sense for them also, 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 because 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 gratifying turning of the table.

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

Friedland cited others who installed solar for general household needs who later realized having effectively free kilowatts on hand, they would benefit from buying or leasing an electric vehicle.

Naturally, beyond the cost-benefit factors, 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 and electricity expenses. You can take your pick, or empathize with all of the above.

King’s off-the-grid living is made possible through readily available technology such as the Outback inverters.

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 including how low your present electric and gasoline expenses are, but the good news, says Friedland – and King – is that solar recharging can pay back out-of-pocket costs to switch.

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, a country not known for being particularly sunny, 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.

Also going beyond creating enough electricity 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.

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 electricity and 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.”

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  • Eddy Jawed

    You’re someone i aspire to emulate. I live in the UK and would love to copy this idea of living gasoline free. Unfortunately I’m not sure how well my pv cells will return their investment here in Manchester. Could your idea work here too?

  • ACAgal

    I put solar on the roof, several years ago. We are on the grid. My annual electric bill has been $45 at the highest – $0 + credit more common. In the meantime our electric rates keep going up, and my husband walked next-door to discuss something with a neighbor, only to hear angry yelling…..turned out the neighbor was yelling on the phone, about their bill to the utility co. Our houses are identical in size, and the bill that the neighbor was yelling about was four times higher than our last pre-solar bill. I did the math and figured my system will pay for itself a lot faster than we first calculated.

    The price of gas in CA is usually higher here in CA than in the rest of the mainland. I did the math, and figured that if we went to EV, and drove the electric the same as we drive my current car, with no increase in fuel costs, we could save $22,000. over the life of the car.

    As for solar + EV in Hawaii, it seems like it would be a great place for both to me…..another option I have never heard of being used in either the islands or CA, would be geothermal.

  • Libertarian Don

    BS. $15k more for a Volt than a Cruise and at ~100K miles you have to replace a $12K battery. That’s $27K-($2.5K of gas *7 years)= 10K in the hole after 100K miles assuming that you use no gas and your electricity is totally free. I love the Volt for its technology and ability to use domestic energy but it is a financial loser compared to the Cruise. It really is a good car and makes sense versus buying a 35K luxury car but these kind of articles make their authors look silly. Throw in the cost of the photovoltaic system and batteries and you’ll be $30K in the hole.

  • Jason King

    After rebates and incentives, a Volt is NOT 15k more than a Cruze, first of all. Do your math.

    Secondly, By the time the battery needs to be replaced, (hopefully) they will be a lot cheaper.

    As for the Volt being a financial loser, I completely disagree. And I live with it.

    Lastly, for me anyways, it’s not just about the money. Yes I could have bought a cheaper car and maybe saved some money. But when more people adopt to this kind of system, the prices will come way down. Some of us have to be the early adopters, and get the ball rolling.

    I love my Volt. And I LOVE not buying gas anymore!

  • Jeff Cobb

    Kiplinger personal finance has a cost of ownership calculator that basically agrees with you Jason.

    Based on $3.80 per gallon gas, after five years of 15,000 miles per year, assuming full federal tax credit is taken, the cost difference between a $40,280 Volt, and $21,975 Cruze LTZ (2011 model years) is said to be $3,623.

    Kiplinger’s Volt’s 5-year estimated ownership cost: $42,583
    Kiplinger’s Cruze LTZ 5-year estimated ownership cost: $38,960.

    This does not account for solar recharging, which stands to offset the difference further.

    That said, as always, this is a qualified calculation and other variables can come into play, no doubt. People considering a buying decision should assess available info, then consider their own situation to make an actual determination for their purposes.

  • Jeff Cobb

    RE: “at ~100K miles you have to replace a $12K battery.”

    This is not GM’s position. The battery has an 8 year/100,000 mile warranty. The company is not stating the battery dies at that point.

    Generally, what normally happens is li-ion batteries do reduce their ability to hold a full charge after a point, but I do not know of a consensus on when that would be for this new vehicle.

    The Volt battery is said to be over engineered, so we shall see on this question.

    Battery prices are coming down, but if this durability question is a concern, it’s also one more reason why leasing the Volt could make better sense.

  • Jay

    Do not agree with you. ~100k driving means approx 8.5 years from the date of purchase (Considering 12,000 Miles of driving per year). But you forgot one thing that “Battery prices are falling fast”. So if today I buy a volt, after 8-9 years (In 2020-2021) the battery cost will be so much lower. In 2020-2021 I think I can buy battery at max 3000$. So it is not that big hole in pocket as compared to saving achieved.

  • Duude

    Where’s King going to come up with a free battery to replace the old when down the road? Is he planning on stealing one, or is Chevy now giving away free replacement batteries? It should run other people between $7500-10000 after the initial battery loses its capacity after 100K-125K miles.

  • Brian W

    We have 2 volts and a 13kWh solar panel system. Between my wife and I we save $400 a month on gas from our previous vehicles. We save $300 per month on our electric bill as well, and still get a a check from the power company. That is $700 per month or $8400 per year. We traded in vehicles for our volts that were comparable in retail price, so the $400 gas savings became instant savings per month. Also, The $15,000 (for both) tax credit put us even further in the black. For people who want to argue that the Cruze is better, I would like to see what gas prices are in 8 years versus my $0 cost from now through the next 8 years. I may being paying a little more today, but you can pay now or pay hell of a lot more later. So Cruze owner who is your daddy, oh that right the gas companies. I have no daddy’s just complete independence. Oh and the power company “daddy” pays me too. Do not think on the short run, but the long, long run.

  • James Davis

    Some of you people sound like the Volt and the all electric Leaf has reached their peak and there will be no more improvements on either the vehicle, engine or battery. Consider this, in ten years or 100,000 miles when you may need to replace your battery, we may not even be using the current battery, but one that cost about a $1,000.00 and can take you 500 to a 1,000 miles on each charge. And also consider this, in ten years, you may not even own a Volt or Leaf, but a much better model with a greater range and lower priced tag. Get you the cheapest electric you can find with the best range and when you need to replace the battery, it may not make you scream no more than buying a new battery for your current ICE and the money you save on gas and electric, you may have enough saved for a down payment on a boat or camper. People who cannot see beyond their noses and stuck down in a ditch shouldn’t speculate on what’s around the corner in a couple of years. Whither Detroit’s big three like it or not, the all electric is here to stay this time and if they don’t want to be left behind, they need to stop dragging their heels and get on the move with all electrics.

  • MrEnergyCzar

    I started driving for free the day I got my Volt. My solar system that powers my entire home has been producing more than my home needs or about 6,000 miles per year in a Volt. The charger at work takes care of the rest…


  • Robert (electricman) Weekley

    As the unit and performance cost Solar PV is dropping by about 5% per year, and both grid electricity, and pump gas are continuing to rise (Up & Down, in an upward direction), and the cost perkWh of Batteries capacity are also dropping at about 14% per year, if you can make the leap to do this, it is likely that you will have three advantages: greater flexibility in fueling charges (cost); greater freedom from fuel dependacy and availability; and changing from Solar is a bonus, to be mixed with public charging options, as well.

    I understand that some (Including myself), see the VOLT as a heavy, ex
    pensive variant of the cruise, but numerous owners consider the Volt more of a Cadillac level product than a Chevy product! With that in mind, some things to consider – being heavier, it has different suspention components, response rates, stiffness characteristics, and other variations. Many owners feel these things give the Volt an edge in handling, control, and safety.

    As the variables of decreasing Solar PV cost compare to just grid power alone, it has been stated that Solar PV generated electrity will be less expensive than the generally increasing Grid power cost, by about mid 2013 – 2013, meaning this approach will soon be more obviously the winner – using Solar PV to charge you PHEV or EV!

  • veek

    I’m skeptical many of us could reproduce these results.

    I wish him well on his choice, congratulate his efforts for our behalf, and hope he will continue to teach us what he has learned, but to say that we should (or can) do all the building and retrofitting that he has, is wishful thinking. If it worked for everyone more people would be doing it, and it raises unrealistic hopes. Check back with him in, say, five years.

    First of all, the only way most of us can get “free energy” is by relying on heavy subsidies from the taxpayer (whom he conspicuously fails to thank); second, the figures don’t count the rather heavy depreciation his Volt is incurring; third, electric energy is not free; and fourth, he lives in a state which is nearly ideal for an electric car. Actually, he might would have been better off buying a pure electric in Hawaii. If he frequently depletes the batteries in the course of his work, he might be better off buying a car which gets better mileage than the Volt after the 35 mile point (these are not hard to find BTW although several Volt drivers will probably say their car gets 60 mpg once the batteries are depleted). Anyway, it’s a nice effort and best wishes to him.

  • Nano

    I’m more sceptical about PV compared to regular solar modules like here for a simple reason. There are security issues that aren’t solved yet. It’s not only about cost and efficiency, as long as these issues aren’t properly adressed by all manufacturers, I’ll stay away from PV and won’t touch it with a stick.

  • Telber

    Especially in countries with higher electricity rates you’ll be driving “free” even faster if you follow this brave and clever example. In germany for example you’ll even get a significant sum directly from the government if you decide to use pv module to produce your own energy.

  • Ian Calhoun

    If you’re voting for DEMOCRATS, then you chose to support:

    * Murder of Newborn Babies (partial-birth abortion)
    * Sodomy (unnatural sex)
    * Bestiality (sex with animals)
    * Legalized Prostitution (adultery)
    * Pornography (fornication) as Free Speech
    * Illegal Drug Use (pharmacea)
    * Illegal Immigration
    * Racism Against Caucasians
    * Bigotry Against Christians
    * Bigotry Against Jews
    * Gun Ban/Control
    * Tobacco Ban/Restrictions
    * Charcoal BBQ Ban
    * 16oz Soda Ban
    * Fireworks Ban
    * Increased Taxes:
    – Income Tax
    – Fuel Tax
    – Cap and Trade Tax
    – Carbon Tax
    – Death Tax
    – Obesity Tax (Candy, Chips, Soda)
    – Obama’s Healthcare Mandate Tax ($695/Individual, $2,250/Family)

    AMERICANS, don’t be fool again! This November, please vote these busy-body, micro-managing, freedom-stealing perverts out of office!

  • Palmer Johnationg

    America is really doing something great, it is really amazing how mankind started from tents to clay houses to wood houses to stone to stucco, now wood with solar power energetic amazing super house to the third degree.

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    If it worked for everyone more people would be doing it, and it raises unrealistic hopes. Check back with him in, say, five years.
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