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November 18, 2010

Envisioning Electric Cars Fueled by Solar

Socket with Volt42

Desmond Wheatley is COO and president of Envision Solar, a solar energy company that specializes in infrastructure. It has designed electric-vehicle charging stations fueled by solar arrays that sit in parking lots. With GM's plug-in hybrid Volt due to hit dealerships before the end of the year, GM and Envision Solar have recently announced a partnership to provide this infrastructure to the automaker's corporate sites and (eventually) its dealerships across the country. Wheatley took a few minutes to answer our questions.

Envision Solar builds specialty panels for parking lots that power adjacent buildings. This new partnership with GM will turn these panels into charging stations for electric cars that park in these lots. Can you give us some details about this partnership?

GM selected us to provide solar energized charging stations, so the deal is to provide our “Solar Trees,” which have an element of biomimicry. [Watch the video.] The center column is like the trunk and the solar array would be like the canopy. We have integrated the charging station into the column. There's solar tracking that allows it to move the entire solar array as the sun moves across the sky, which gives us a 18 to 25 percent increase in productivity in the solar cell.

The Solar Tree is a beautiful thing to look at when you have a whole parking lot of these things. During the course of the day, the whole aspect of the parking lot changes as the arrays follow the sun. There's kind of a beautiful sculptural aspect of it.


GM has contracted with us to provide these Trees. One can charge six to eight electric vehicles in a day. These are very highly engineered.

We are building Trees for GM right now. They will go into their corporate campus in Detroit. We'll continue at their corporate locations. And from there -- this is where it gets exciting -- we'll build across their dealership network. The dealers will obviously need charging infrastructure. The dealers agree that charging should not be from coal, and obviously GM is on board with that. All and all it's a very positive thing.

What's the long-term timeline for this endeavor?

GM's Volt will be rolled out across six states initially. We will roll out the infrastructure in lockstep and slightly in advance. We're talking about doing this certainly through 2011. We think we'll be deploying in significant numbers at least for the foreseeable future.

Your "Solar Trees" address some of the criticisms out there that it takes a long time to power an electric car versus a two-minute trip to the gas station with a traditional gas guzzler. Considering how long cars sit in parking lots, this technology powers up cars while they sit dormant.

Absolutely. It's fantastic to be able to put to rest certain issues, such as the electric car's range. But there's so much more to it. For example, when it comes to solar covered parking lots, we know that employees like to get early to spots in the shade. About 80 percent of what electric vehicles first take in goes to cooling a battery to get it to an optimal temperature before it charges. If this car is parked in the sun, you have to use energy just to get the battery cooled before you can charge. So this low-tech aspect includes a shaded array that makes it even easier to charge.

Also, this is a grid offset solution. Electric cars are great and we applaud them. But it's nowhere near as good as electric cars powered by clean, solar energy. Electric cars are only as clean as the energy that charges the battery.

Another thing is that this is good for the electrical grid. New electric cars are like plugging in new houses into the grid. We offset that because we make the electricity where it's used. It's a no-brainer. A win-win-win.

Isn't this a chicken-and-egg situation where the success of your infrastructure depends on electric car sales, which depend on infrastructure?

It is. If there are disappointing EV sales over the next few years, you probably won't see the same aggression with rolling out infrastructure. But I'm going to suggest this: everyone who's heavily invested in EVs knows that to have significant sales, you have to have infrastructure in place. That's why in the short-term, you're going to see an aggressive roll out of charging infrastructure. The majority of it won't be sustainable. Much of it will rely on the coal burning grid. But the good news is that the big players, like GM, are behind us. There's no reason to not put the infrastructure in. It pays for itself. It's good for the environment. People are going to be happy knowing they're charging their cars using solar rather than coal.

California's Proposition 23 (which would've rolled back its climate-change mandate) was defeated, but it's one of many examples of the dirty-energy industry putting clean energy on the defense. What is it going to take for the clean-energy industry to start putting dirty energy on the defense?

We all need as much help as we can in the value chain to reduce our reliance on carbon based fuels. Any political act that doesn't help with that transfer won't be good in the long-term. It will be bad for the industry and the economy. This is a great country that has done great things. You don't put a man on the moon, never had built the freeway system, or gone to Normandy, if you just had a wait-and-see mentality. America should be the great leader in solar. That's why we went to GM with this. We wanted it to be an American initiative. And we wanted to see if a huge American institution would take on something like this. And they have and we're very happy about that.

-- Brian Foley


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