Sunshine Electrifies His Home and Car

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Noah Forden uses his ground-mounted solar array to power his house and charge his electric vehicle. (Courtesy photo)

Noah Forden uses his ground-mounted solar array to power his house and charge his electric vehicle. (Courtesy photo)

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Noah Forden not only powers his electric car with solar energy, but he also built the solar array himself.

He insists, however, that you don’t have to be a mechanical engineer to build your own power system — although he is a mechanical engineer who has built a two-seater airplane.

“I think a lot of people are intimidated by doing their own solar installation, but it’s really straightforward,” said Forden, noting that there are several do-it-yourself solar kits for sale online.

Forden bought parts for his 42-panel ground-mounted solar system on the Internet and purchased discounted equipment, such as mounting racks and a power inverter, through friends in the solar business.

Taking time after work and on weekends, he assembled the 10-kilowatt array outside his home in a few weeks. The array, which is sizeable by residential standards, cost about $18,000. However, a less expensive 1- to 2-kilowatt solar array is sufficient for car charging, according to Forden.

He estimated that his solar array will pay for itself in less than four years, because of a 30 percent federal tax credit and a fixed-price agreement to sell his electricity using the state’s recently expanded solar incentive program called Renewable Energy Growth.

The contract requires National Grid to pay Forden 37.75 cents per kilowatt-hour for his electricity for 20 years, a rate well above the standard retail rate of about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.

His home’s solar array doesn’t charge his car directly, but feeds power into the electric grid during the day. His electric vehicle pulls electricity from the grid at night when it recharges.

Forden’s car, a 2014 Chevy Volt, runs 44 miles per charge during the summer, and less when the heater is needed on cold days. Still, the charge is enough to fuel the 35-mile round-trip commute to Naval Station Newport, where he works as a civilian engineer.

“I expected it to be a compromise driving an electric car, but its not; it’s a blast to drive,” Forden said.

He bought an electric vehicle (EV) because it costs less to run and maintain than a conventional gasoline car. “A lot of people don’t believe it when I tell them that,” he said.

Owning an EV means no more trips to the gas station and no oil changes. There are fewer moving parts than a gas-powered car, so it’s cheaper to keep on the road, even when you add in the $2,000 cost of replacing the battery after its eight-year warranty expires.

After the payback period ends on his home’s recently added solar array, the electricity it creates will fund the cost of his EV.

The green benefits started as a byproduct of saving money, but Forden recognized there is an environmental imperative. According to a report issued by the State Office of Energy Resources in June, Rhode Island’s transportation sector releases 4.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

The state has been encouraging EV use to help diversify Rhode Island’s fuel mix, keep more power production in state, and cut air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Last year, Rhode Island hit a goal of installing 50 EV charging stations. In 2013, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a seven-state pact to get 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. The state Office of Energy Resources is looking to boost EV use through incentives such as discounted electricity rates for off-peak charging times and designated EV parking spots.

For Forden, the financial gains of EV ownership were obvious. “It was primarily an economic decision, but I like the environmental benefits as well,” he said.

His car isn’t 100 percent green, however. The Volt has an 8-gallon tank that fuels a small back-up engine. The engine kicks in when the battery runs out of juice. But, Forden hasn’t put gas in the tank for four months.

“To think you can drive back and forth from work just using sunshine, it is really empowering,” he said.