LOS ANGELES — After a brief reprieve, gas prices continue their inexorable summer climb, but Nathaniel Connor hardly notices.
Connor, who lives just beyond the eastern border of Santa Monica in Los Angeles, hasn’t visited the pump in the last three months thanks to his two electric vehicles and a plethora of solar panels affixed to the roof of his house that fuel them.
Connor was what one might call an “early adopter” of solar energy, and he’s become an even bigger cheerleader for electric vehicles, which he views as part of the answer to the growing question about our country’s dependence on fossil fuels.
He hopes that his system can show people that electric vehicles and clean energy have come a long way.
“People don’t have to sacrifice,” Connor said.
The 30-year veteran of the electric industry bought his first solar panel, a 30-watt unit made by the gas company Arco, in the 1980s for $400.
He still has it, a slim brown fixture that has since taken a backseat to the larger, cheaper and more modern models he bought from a German company that produce seven times as much power.
The panels produce roughly 15 kilowatts of electricity per day, more than enough to meet his energy needs, power his two electric vehicles and even sell some back to Southern California Edison for a paltry 40 cents per hour.
At that rate, Connor is happy to just feed his cars, which he figures saves him $7.40 for every 50 miles traveled compared to a gas-powered car that gets 25 miles to the gallon.
Connor tackles vehicle travel with a one-two punch. For longer trips, he has a Chevy Volt, which he leases from the company for about $300 per month, which was about what he was paying in gas in his old car.
Shorter trips get zapped with his Zap, a small, red contraption with an open bed that Connor describes as a “Tonka truck.”
“For where I go, this is perfect,” Connor said.
While the Volt requires a specific charging station attached to the side of the home, Connor has created his own mechanism for charging the truck that he calls Con Air.
It lets him save about 15 percent more energy than he would using a traditional plug because it channels energy from his solar panels into the truck directly without changing the type of current.
The Connors of the world are multiplying, especially in California.
According to a survey by the California Center for Sustainable Energy and California Air Resources Board, approximately 35 percent of all plug-in vehicles in the United States are found in the Golden State.
As of July 2012, an additional 1,000 new plug-ins are being sold in the state every month.
Those cars run an average of 800 miles per month and conserve approximately 350,000 gallons of petroleum each month. Roughly 39 percent of those surveyed also have solar panels installed, just like Connor.
The survey helps policy makers understand exactly who is buying these cars, how they’re using them and what obstacles are still out there for those not yet in the market, said Mike Ferry, transportation programs manager for the California Center for Sustainable Energy.
For instance, 97 percent of electric vehicle owners surveyed live in single-family homes, while the remainder live in apartments and condominiums, and only 7 percent of those surveyed were single.
Usually, owners have two or more cars and need the garage or private space to charge the electric one.
While that’s been the assumption for some time, the survey gives policy makers the grounds from which to work to expand the amount and kind of electric vehicle infrastructure in order to meet an ambitious goal by Gov. Jerry Brown to put 1.5 million plug-in cars on the road by 2025.
“It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to have data that supports that conclusion,” Ferry said.
State and federal grant money is rolling out to create more plug-in vehicle infrastructure, along with $100 million from a settlement with NRG, the company that employs Councilmember Terry O’Day.
Charging stations in businesses and on public property are popping up all over southern California, and are easily found using smartphone applications that pinpoint them on maps.
Housing is a more complicated question.
Santa Monica, a city where over 70 percent of the population lives in rental housing, faces a significant challenge when it comes to electric vehicle infrastructure, said Dean Kubani, the director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
“How do you get more chargers into multi-family rental housing?” he asked. “The issue with that is there’s a lot of problems.”
Officials can’t require landowners to install the chargers, so City Hall is partnering with the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA to pin down what incentives may be necessary to encourage private owners to do it on their own.
There are also discussions of including language in Santa Monica codes to require future development be EV-ready, so that if someone wants to install a charger, they can do so relatively simply.
Upgrading can be an expensive process, Kubani said.
“You can go out, buy a charger, have someone install it for you and then find out you have to upgrade the panel, install a meter and run line,” Kubani said. “It can quickly become a $10,000 job.”
If the property is already EV-ready, it’s a matter of an inexpensive hookup.
Santa Monica officials are keeping electric vehicle needs at the front of their minds so the city will be prepared when more people make the switch. There are grant dollars out there to help, and officials are also considering charging for electricity at public charging stations, which are currently free.
City Hall wants to be proactive without laying out huge amounts of resources, Kubani said.
“The cars are really coming now, whether the infrastructure is there or not,” he said.