It was this time last month that we decided to supplement our home solar panel array with a 2013 Chevy Volt. How have the last four weeks treated us and our car? Pretty good; in fact, better than I expected. The average Volt driver reportedly fills up the gas tank every 900 miles or so because the gas engine only kicks on after the car’s battery has been depleted. We’ve driven more than 1,300 miles on this first tank from the dealer and haven’t filled up yet, although we will soon.
Cold weather doesn’t make for a happy Volt
One external factor that’s hurting the number of miles we can run on a full battery charge is the winter. Under typical driving and climate conditions, GM says the 2013 Volt should get around 38 miles of travel on a single charge. But like any batteries, those in the Volt are adversely affected by cold temperatures. As a result, we’ve experienced some driving days where we only get 34 or 35 miles on car’s battery and then the gas generator kicks in.
The engine has also turned on sporadically to maintain the battery temperature; even when there’s still plenty of juice in the power pack. I’ve noticed this when the temps drop below 35-degrees or so, which is common right now where we live in Pennsylvania. These few periods when the engine heats things up a bit don’t use up much gas however. The engine might run for two or three minutes at a time.
We’re using more electricity, but still not paying for it
Part of the reason we decided to get a car that runs primarily off of electricity is because we’re creating more electricity than we use on an annual basis. In the last 12 months, our 41 solar panels produced 13.8 MWh of electricity but we only used 7.5 MWh of it. Of course, recharging the Volt’s battery on a daily basis is increasing our electricity consumption. It takes roughly 10.8 kWh to fully charge the Volt, which costs us about $1.18 and takes 10 hours with the standard charger.
Although the month of December isn’t over, I checked our electricity usage to date and found it to be 628 kWh so far this month. A quick peek at our home’s solar energy electricity production show that we’ve only produced 462 kWh of energy, so we’re at a deficit. (Note: Our solar array data is made public in real-time here.) I’m not concerned, however.
We’ve built up enough of a surplus with our energy provider so we’ll simply tap into that reserve instead of paying a bill this month. And the winter months are known for both their shorter days and a lower sun angle, so I’m not surprised that we haven’t created enough electricity to have a surplus. That’s sure to change as the days get longer: Last June our panels produced 1.48 MWh of electricity, or nearly four times that of the current month.
Even though there aren’t too many public charging stations in our area, I have found one at the King of Prussia mall, which is the second largest mall in the country and local to us. Atop one of the parking garages are two spots dedicated to electric vehicles, complete with a pair of 240V charging stations. There’s no cost and we’ve taken advantage of them three times already. By the time we’re done shopping, our Volt battery is fully charged for the ride home.
Savings are looking good
Even though we’re tapping our personal reserve of electricity, we’ve come out way ahead in this first month. It was a typical driving month for us, in terms of mileage, but didn’t really cost us anything out of pocket for fuel. The prior month, we drove roughly the same miles and spent just over $227 in gasoline costs.
This month we didn’t see an exact savings of that figure, of course, however the first tank of gas in our Volt was provided by the dealer. And, as noted, we won’t pay anything more for the electricity used to charge the Volt. If we can fill up the tank once per month — at a cost of around $35 for the small tank — and produce enough electricity from the sun, we will have drastically cut our costs for fuel.
Fun to drive at the same time
Not only are we saving money, but we’re having fun driving the car. I really enjoy it. It’s almost like a game to me: Getting each ride to be as efficient as possible. We haven’t really been limited by the fact that only four people fit in a Volt but it could be a future inconvenience. We have two kids, so in most cases, we’re fine. If the kids have a friend over and we have to go somewhere, either my wife or I ends up staying at home. If nothing else, it gives one of us an excuse not to be the kids’ chauffeur.
I still haven’t enabled the OnStar account, so I haven’t yet been able to play with the smartphone apps. I’ll do that over the holidays. I’ve also ended up saving myself $10 a month by cancelling my Rdio music subscription and just using Pandora in the car over Bluetooth. There’s a dedicated Pandora app that displays album art and supports the thumbs up / thumbs down rating activity on the car’s touchscreen.
So far there isn’t much that I don’t like in the Volt, save perhaps the many touch buttons in it. All of them are labeled against a white background — at least in our model — and can sometimes be hard to read. Without a doubt, you really have to look the console to find the right button, which can be a safety issue. My way around that has been to make very good use of the car’s integrated speech recognition system, which works quite well for audio and climate controls.