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My Driving on Sunshine Story

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One sunny Saturday in September Zoe and I walked into a Ford dealership, and walked out with a new car. Here is the story…

“Driving on Sunshine” is a series about people who are using grid-tied solar panels on their homes to power their electric vehicles. More plug-in vehicles are entering the market at competitive prices, including low monthly leases starting at $199/month. In addition, more people are able to afford home solar systems thanks to solar leasing programs and group-purchasing options, such as CEC’s Solarize program.

Type of Electric Vehicle 2013 Ford C-Max Energi
Leased or Purchased Leased
Size of Solar Array
3.45 kW
Solar Installer REC Solar
Leased or Purchased Purchased
CEC Solarize Participant No (it did not exist yet)

Jordan benShea
Santa Barbara, CA

Jordan benShea had not been thinking about buying a new car, electric or otherwise. At nearly 200k miles, her roomy and rugged 2002 Toyota Highlander was going strong, and the mechanic said it would keep chugging forever. Plus, it had been paid off for years.

Not to say she hadn’t thought about the benefits of a more energy-efficient lifestyle. Her home was converted to solar back in 2006, producing enough energy to power three homes on the property and still sell electricity back to Edison during the down times. Also, the Prius is a common vehicle in her family. However, the low profile and smaller capacity of these vehicles just didn’t mesh with her daily needs, which often included piling both a dog and a bike in the car for an off-road adventure.

Then a Facebook post about the Chevy Volt by Michael Chiacos, CEC’s Energy Program Manager, piqued Jordan’s interest, and she reached out to him. As a solution to needing more space, he suggested a hybrid option that was a little more Jordan’s speed, and a lot more her size: the Ford C-Max Energi.

Just for kicks, she went to the Ford website and built a virtual model of this 4-door hatchback, picking and choosing options important to her. Not too long after, she found her way to a dealership to take a test drive, still not intending to buy. “Walking in, there was zero part of me that thought I was going to get a new car that day.”

What changed Jordan’s mind?

First and foremost was the fact that she already had solar panels at home. This meant there would be zero cost for charging the vehicle and—even more exciting for her—she would get to serve as an ambassador for CEC’s “Driving on Sunshine” program.

Then there was her experience at the dealership. She was directed to the internet office where “there was absolutely no sales pressure” because she’d mocked up the car online. The test drive left her impressed by the design inside and out—the ultra-smooth get-up-and-go of the ride, the high-tech auto-park mode, the Sony surround sound.

And finally, the rebates and discounts off the $39,000 price tag sealed the deal: $7,500 in instant federal rebates, $1,500 from the California Center for Sustainable Energy’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, and a $4,000 trade-in value for her well-loved Highlander. This, plus $800 out of pocket, penciled out to a 3-year lease at $328 per month with 19,500 miles per year and 2 years free maintenance.

Now that Jordan had the car, she reasoned she may as well maximize its energy-saving potential. This meant she needed to rethink the way she drove, and the car’s built-in coaching tools were crucial to helping her do just that. The dashboard tracked acceleration, braking, and cruising and provided a visual to let her know when she could better optimize each activity. The Energi app gave her scores for braking and driving to teach her to maximize fuel efficiency.

Then there was community support. “CEC was a huge resource—I spent a lot of time talking with Michael about all the ways I could save energy.” A week after buying the car, she also participated in the Plug In SB—an annual event where other hybrid owners shared insider knowledge.

Six months in to driving the car, the app showed that she had doubled her efficiency, going from an average of 40 mpg in September to 80.5 mpg in February. The app also revealed that she’d saved the equivalent of a blimp’s-worth (125 gallons) of gas and 10,367 pounds of CO2. She noted, “It’s awesome to see how my choices have such a big impact.” In the spirit of today’s social web, she also used the app to rank herself among other drivers, engendering a little friendly eco-competition.

Financially she’s benefiting as well. Before making the switch, she regularly filled up her tank five times or more per month. No longer. “My car went 1,364 miles on my last tank of gas, and I’ve only filled up 4 times in the past 5 months.” To achieve these high mpg rates, she opts to drive on purely electric whenever she’s taking shorter trips around town. And even with nightly charges at home, she hasn’t seen an uptick in her monthly electricity usage. Since she’s on solar, she has the added luxury of charging her car whenever it’s convenient—those not on solar tend to wait until night to charge to take advantage of lower electricity rates.

Not to say that switching cars was all roses——Jordan felt a bit of sacrifice. She misses the sense of independence that being able to go anywhere and do anything in her Toyota had given her. She has had to learn to downsize what she brings with her, and she can’t throw her car into 4-wheel drive to head off-road anymore. In order to optimize fuel, she also has to plan out her trips a little more carefully, and consciously focus on the choices she makes while driving.

Despite these downsides, she says, “It’s so worth it for not being dependent on gas. It feels like I’m doing my part, and I love that I’m flying by the gas station. Plus, I love that I’m supporting an American company now—all my previous cars have been foreign.”

Jordan’s done her part in other ways as well. Not long after she bought the car, the dealership contacted her to be in a commercial about buying the new car. While not eager to step into the limelight, she decided being out of her comfort zone was worth it if it could spur others toward greener transportation.

Now seven months in, Jordan loves that she is still discovering new features and possibilities for optimizing the car’s power-saving potential. Perhaps she’ll have them all figured out by the time the lease is up (at which point she’ll likely upgrade to a newer model given the rapid advancements occurring in fuel cell technology).

Either way, she finds that having a plug-in hybrid suits her lifestyle—and more importantly, her ambitions to protect the planet—quite well.

Written by Nicole Schon. Fully story can be found on the CEC website.

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