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Entering The Driving On Sunshine Galaxy

“Driving on Sunshine” is a series about people who are using grid-tied solar panels on their homes to power their electric vehicles.  More plug-in vehicles are entering the market at competitive prices, including low monthly leases starting at $199/month. In addition, more people are able to afford home solar systems thanks to solar leasing programs and group-purchasing options, such as CEC’s Solarize program.

Tal and Lisa Avitzur
Santa Barbara, CA

Type of Electric Vehicle 2013 Fiat 500e
Leased or Purchased Leased
Size of Solar Array 2.97 kW DC
Solar Installer Good Energy Renewables
Leased or Purchased Purchased
CEC Solarize Participant No

Local artist and Santa Barbara City College teacher, Tal Avitzur, is no stranger to science fiction. His childhood was filled with books, movies, and comics from the genre, and today, the studio behind his Santa Barbara home near La Cumbre and Foothill Roads overflows with his futuristic but friendly-looking creations. Using materials rescued from scrap and salvage yards—including vintage tools, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, and marine hardware—Tal designs and builds robot sculptures and gives them names like Sentry, Quark, and Tritons.

So, when Tal first learned about ‘driving on sunshine,’ or powering an electric vehicle with solar energy produced by panels on your home, it seemed like a science fiction fantasy come to life. A desire to fulfill that fantasy, along with his and his wife Lisa’s aspirations to reduce their carbon footprint, led the couple to research leasing an electric car.

At first, however, the process was not easy. Over the course of a few months, they could not find a dealer who would lease an electric car for the advertised rate, mostly because of hidden costs, says Tal. Then, late last December, he spotted an ad offering a low year-end lease option for the Fiat 500e electric car that he thought looked simple and straightforward. The only problem was that the offer expired the next day. Not to be deterred, Tal and Lisa immediately went down to the dealership in Thousand Oaks and within an hour, left with their new car.

As for the solar panels, Tal had first started looking into purchasing them about 10 years ago, but the cost had always been prohibitive. In recent years, with prices of solar panels starting to drop, and knowing the state rebates were about to be exhausted, Tal and Lisa started reconsidering switching to the renewable technology.

“Once we got the car, we became more serious about installing the solar panels,” Tal says. “The electric vehicle was a gateway technology. We wanted to be able to charge a car, power a hot tub and the rest without worrying about an astronomical electric bill, especially with the threat of increasing rates.”

Tal and Lisa worked with Aaron Luckett, founder of Good Energy Renewables, to install a 2.97 kW DC system made by LG Electronics on their home. Aaron, through his work with several other regional installation companies, has installed more than 160 systems locally over the last seven years, including the system of CEC’s Energy and Transportation Manager Michael Chiacos. Knowing Michael’s story gave Tal even more confidence in his choice of installer. ”Aaron and his crew were clearly experienced and knowledgeable, and they were also extremely professional and easy to work with,” states Lisa.

Now, at least for the initial summer months, their system produces more electricity than their home uses, and their utility banks credits for the excess generation. For example, their energy use before the panels averaged about 236 kWh each month. In the first 23 days of use, their panels have already generated 418 kWh. When solar production decreases during shorter winter days, Tal and Lisa will use up those credits first before receiving an electricity bill from Southern California Edison.

Even with all this “free” energy, Tal and Lisa are still conservative in their total usage, turning off unnecessary lights and drying their clothes outside when possible. “Lisa’s just glad that I no longer expect her to wear the camping helmet with attached flashlight to get around the house at night,” Tal jokes.

Since the range of the car is about 86 miles per charge, Tal and Lisa primarily use their electric car locally. They have kept their older Honda Civic for those few times when they want to take a longer trip. Recently, the two of them drove to Napa, a distance of about 375 miles that was clearly outside the electric vehicle’s range. Tal had been commissioned to create several robots, and because his client had been patient, Tal decided to deliver the robots in person as a thank-you. But instead of trying to take either of their cars, he and Lisa took advantage of one of the most popular perks of the Fiat 500e — 12 free rental car days per year on Enterprise and Alamo – and drove the hybrid they were provided with up to the wine country.

Not worrying about the price of gas and not emitting carbon dioxide and carcinogenic hydrocarbons into the environment are additional benefits of their new car, Tal says. “It feels like this planet needs us humans to be more conscientious about our habits. Every little bit helps. Besides, green is the new black.”

It wasn’t that long ago that driving on sunshine was outside the realm of possibility for any of us. Nowadays, however, it’s clearly much more science fact than fiction.

To see Tal’s robot creations, go to www.talbotics.com.

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