Local firm sells sun power for cars

BOULDER — Consumers who buy the electricity-powered Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus also can buy a $10,000 solar-panel system to juice it up from Namaste Solar Electric Inc. in Boulder.

Namaste is a local dealer of SunPower solar panels. San Jose, California,-based SunPower Corp. (Nasdaq: SPWR) sells a 2.5 kilowatt SunPower solar system for the “discounted” price of $10,000 in its “Drive Green for Life” program, not including other rebates and incentives, according to the SunPower website.

Anecdotally, there’s been interest from Boulder customers in the national program, said Dan Yechout, sales director at Namaste.

Because the new program is “just getting off the ground,” said Jason Mortimer, a SunPower representative, no statistics have been compiled on the number of electric vehicle purchases and conversions locally and nationally.

Just 1,600 electric cars will be on the roads of the Denver metro area by the end of the year, according to estimates from the Boulder office of Chicago-based power industry research company Navigant Consulting Inc. Across the nation, solar panels are expected to grow at a rate of around 10 percent annually through 2018, however, leading to a huge cross-marketing opportunity between the two industries, said John Gartner, research director of the smart transportation division at Navigant.

“Together, these two industries can provide a complete solution that enables emissions-free driving as well as clean, low-cost electricity,” a recent Navigant report said.

A new state tax credit of up to $6,000 for electric cars also could capture the imagination of car buyers, those in the solar industry say. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill into law on May 15 that enables the tax credit, which comes on top of a federal tax credit for electric cars of up to $7,500.

The tax credit is a big help to Paul Guzyk, co-owner of Boulder Hybrid Conversions, who said he expects his company to convert 30 to 50 Toyota Priuses from gas to electric plug-in hybrids (going from about 45 miles to the gallon to 80 to 100 miles to the gallon) by the end of the year. Boulder Hybrid has converted about 120 cars from gas to the hybrid electric power systems since 2010, Guzyk said.

While Guzyk doesn’t formally partner with any solar companies, he hears anecdotally from customers that about 80 percent of them have solar panels at home. The conversion work his company does can cost about $10,000 to $12,000 per car.

“They don’t want to see coal-power electricity run (their) cars,” Guzyk said. “Solar is a great fit. Consumers drive electric vehicles with sunshine from their own rooftops.”

Eric R. Ridenour, president and chief executive at UQM Technologies Inc. in Longmont (NYSE: UQM) also is enthusiastic about the idea. UQM makes electric motors, not batteries, Ridenour said, with products that power buses, trucks and delivery vans. But Ridenour said he personally has a solar panel system at home.

As more customers decide they want to lower their “carbon footprint,” they’ll look more to alternatives such as solar energy, Ridenour said.

In the meantime, Boulder Hybrid Conversion customers such as Marc Plinke already have made the plunge. Plinke estimates that his solar panels and car conversions were paid off in seven years, based on how much the electricity the panels generate for his two Prius electric cars compared with a gasoline price of $3.36 per gallon. Plinke owns Ceres Greenhouse Solutions Co. in Boulder, a greenhouse design company.

Plinke ran through cost-benefit analysis calculations of the $14,000 he paid for his 10-kilowatt solar panel system in 2001 and the estimated $11,500 he paid for the two Prius conversions from gas-powered to electric hybrid motors. He then calculated that he drives 8,000 miles per year per car, and figured he would pay $1,036 per year in gas for each car based on getting 25 miles to the gallon and paying for 325 miles of gas at $3.36.

He estimated he used about $400 worth of electricity for his two cars last year at 2,000 kilowatt hours’ worth of electricity multiplied by the value of the electricity of 10 cents per kilowatt hour. The electricity came from his solar panels, he said.

But while saving money is nice, Plinke said, that’s not the reason he bought the solar panels and converted the cars to electric hybrid plug-ins.

“I did this because it’s the right thing to do,” Plinke said. “I don’t do it for the money. It needs to be done. End of story.”

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