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Modern Day Money Trees

“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. 

Type of Electric Vehicle 2013 Nissan Leaf
Leased or Purchased Leased
Size of Solar Array 3.6 kW DC
Leased or Purchased Purchased
CEC Solarize Participant No

Stephen Sherrill
Santa Barbara, CA

For Stephen Sherrill, the switch to renewable energy began nearly ten years ago when he climbed onto the top of his Santa Barbara home and helped a contractor friend mount solar panels on the roof. Impressed by another friend’s solar array, Stephen had realized that he could either continue to pay his power company for increasingly expensive electricity, or he could invest in solar. Once he recouped his initial outlay on the investment, he reasoned, he could bask in free electricity for the duration of the panels’ life — between 30 and 40 years.

Today, Stephen’s panels have been paid off for nearly three years, and he’s reveling in his choice.

“The panels have done exactly what I’d hoped they’d do. It’s a joyous thing not to get an electric bill anymore. People say there’s no such thing as a money tree, but I beg to differ because solar panels will sit up there on your roof and make you money,” he says.

His success with the solar technology led him to follow advances in electric transportation, and a few years ago he found himself considering the purchase of an electric vehicle. There were, however, a few hitches.

Stephen is a remodeling contractor (and photographer), and the only vehicle he owned was a Ford F-350 pick-up truck that got ten miles a gallon on its best day. He needed the truck to transport his tools, supplies, and lumber, but he didn’t need it to drive down to the grocery store for a loaf of bread, pick up his daughter from school, or dine out at restaurants on the weekends.

He started researching electric vehicles and quickly realized that he worried about their range. “Most people ask what good is a car that will only go 80 to 100 miles on a charge,” says Stephen. “They are used to being able to hop in their car and drive up to San Francisco or down to LA and back. I was thinking along those same lines.” As a result, he focused on plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, which uses only electricity for the first 38 miles of driving, but has a gasoline engine that automatically kicks on when the battery drops below a certain level. But the Volt’s sticker price, around $40,000 at the time, was more than he could afford. (The Volt now starts at $34,995 and qualifies for $9,000 in state and federal incentives).

Then, driving down Milpas Street running errands in his fuel-inefficient truck last year, Stephen had an epiphany. Although he had been most concerned about an electric vehicle’s ability to get him to cities several hours away, he’d been blind to the fact that he visited those places once or twice a year. Meanwhile, he made dozens of smaller trips in a week around Santa Barbara that most electric vehicles could easily handle. “That’s when the light bulb came on, and I decided to get an electric car. To heck with the gasoline,” Stephen says.

He now drives a 2013 Nissan Leaf, in part to take advantage of its approximately $200 monthly lease for 36 months, and his savings since have been concrete. Before, driving only his truck, Stephen spent about $3,800 on gasoline in a year. Even though 99% of the trips he was making were local — between Goleta and Montecito — he would still have to fill up his tank around three times a month, paying more than $100 each time. Now, since he has reduced his use of the vehicle, he’s filling it up only once a month, for a savings of over $200.

Those savings are part of what helps the Leaf “pay for itself,” Stephen says. “When I reach 10,000 miles on my Leaf, at 10 miles per gallon on my truck, that’s 1,000 gallons of gasoline that I didn’t have to buy.  At $4 per gallon, that comes to a savings of $4,000!”

He did have to add a few panels to his home solar system to meet the new electricity demand of the Leaf, and he purchased seven used panels from a friend of a friend for $2,500. “Now, I’m driving on sunshine, and it’s the happiest feeling in the world,” he says. “I just can’t get the smile off my face when I’m going down the road. It’s smooth, clean, quiet, and powerful. And it’s free. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Although Stephen recognizes that everyone has different needs, he encourages others to at least consider whether an electric vehicle might work for them, and he offers his experiences as a blueprint. And, he points out, “after driving an electric vehicle, it’ll seem like getting in a gasoline car is like hopping in a horse and buggy. It’s antiquated technology: the noise, the vibration, the smell of gasoline, and the pollution. Why put yourself through that? Drive an electric vehicle, and you’ll never look back.”

Besides, we all know what happened to the horse and buggy.

Emily DeMarco

Emily DeMarco holds a master of environmental science and management from the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she specialized in strategic environmental communication and water resources management.
Emily DeMarco

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