Electric Car Roadtrip! Courtesy of SolarCity

roadtripReady to make that grueling San Francisco to Los Angeles roadtrip . . . in an electric vehicle? Yeah, that doesn’t sound so great given the current limited range of EVs, but solar installer SolarCity has decided to lend a hand and has built a set of four solar electric-car charging stations along U.S. Route 101. SolarCity is calling the project the world’s first solar-powered electric-car charging corridor, and the stations have been built in parking lots belonging to Rabobank, the California subsidiary of the Dutch banking group, in Salinas, Atascadero, Santa Maria and Goleta. The project was built using funds from the California Air Resources Board as well as grid electricity and space donated by Rabobank.

The stations start to address what has been a major deterrent with electric vehicles -– the fact that they have ranges much smaller than that of gasoline cars. While some advocates scoff at the issue, pointing out that most Americans commute less than 35 miles per day, car companies worry that mainstream drivers will be reluctant to buy cars that they can’t take on road trips. As it is, electric-car drivers are afraid to drive far from their chargers.

One solution is to build many more charging stations, so that electric-car drivers -– like their gasoline-vehicle counterparts today –- can be confident that they will be able to find one. “We really need to build out our electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure,” SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive said. “Fast forward five years from now, it would be great if every store, every location, had a vehicle-charging station so drivers never have to think about where to get charged.”

The SolarCity stations each can charge one electric vehicle at a time for now, although Rive said the company plans to expand its efforts if more stations are needed. Each station comes equipped with a 29-kilowatt solar-power system that’s connected to the electrical grid, so that drivers can charge their vehicles even when the sun isn’t shining.

The stations are fast-charging, meaning that they feed electricity into the vehicles more speedily than standard wall outlets. But they still will take more than three hours to fully charge an electric car, said Rive, who added that most cars will only be half or two-thirds empty and will charge in an hour or an hour and a half. Tesla Roadsters, for example, can travel about 220 miles on a single charge. The charging stations are all located near shops and restaurants, so that drivers will be able to find things to do while waiting to tank up, he added.

The solar part of the equation helps to tackle a concern about the potential impact of vehicle charging on the grid. Fast-charging is tougher on the grid than regular charging, because more electricity is drawn out of the grid in a short amount of time, potentially causing instability.

Utilities fear these chargers could burden the already-strained grid, especially if electric vehicles are charging during the day, at times of peak demand. But drivers don’t want to be restricted from charging when they’re en route. The idea is that solar power would help the grid by generating electricity during those peak hours, eliminating any impact from the vehicle charging at critical times, Rive said. At night, the grid has surplus energy, so car charging wouldn’t be a problem.

The move could also help connect solar with the small but growing electric-vehicle market. While Rive said he doesn’t see electric vehicles as driving the solar market, he hopes that electric-vehicle owners will chose solar for their homes, as well as for their businesses. (SolarCity finances solar installations for homes and businesses, which agree to buy the resulting electricity for a fixed rate lower than their current electricity rates.) “The focus is adding all the ingredients to live a carbon-free lifestyle,” he said. “If every car was an electric vehicle, it would help the problem, but not solve it. We need electric vehicles combined with solar to solve it.”

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