Going electric: Adding the 2013 Chevy Volt to a solar-powered home

After a full year of using solar electricity in our home, my family took the next step over the holiday weekend and bought a plug-in electric vehicle. While running errands, we passed a local dealer to test drive the only 2013 Chevrolet Volt(s gm) on the lot and ended up driving it home a few hours later. Earlier this month, I noted that we were considering such a move since our 41 rooftop solar panels generated 6207 kWh of excess electricity.

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My wife and I both work from home, so even though we can rack up miles on our vehicles, most travel is short-range. But we didn’t want to go completely electric for our next car because we occasionally like to take trips to New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.; all of which are 100 or more miles away.

How much was our Chevy Volt

I shared the details and costs of our solar panel project, so it makes sense to cover the Volt financials as well. The car still qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit, which can help offset some of the next cost. And that’s good because the base 2013 Volt starts at $39,145. Our particular vehicle has a few options — alloy wheels, a rear camera, sensors for front parking assistance and a forward collision alert camera — bringing the MSRP to $41,935 with destination charge included.

We actually opted to lease the vehicle for a few reasons, so we’re not get the direct tax credit benefit. Instead, the dealer gets the credit and can apply some of it to reduce the leasing costs. Since the Volt doesn’t have a long history of proven technology, we opted to work with the dealer on the lease and after applying some equity on our trade-in, our total payment including tax is $301 a month for 36 months. We also got a 4000W gas generator from the dealer, which was a Thanksgiving weekend perk, so now we’re really ready for the next big storm!

Ultimately, we paid nothing out of pocket, as a result of our trade-in and various incentives that GM and Ally Bank are currently offering. We also opted for 15,000 miles per year — which raises the monthly cost — because the Volt will be our primary vehicle. Another $6 of the monthly payment extends the 36,000 mile warranty to our potential 45,000 miles. Bear in mind that any particular deal you work out on a Volt will likely vary from ours; I’m simply trying to provide an idea of what it might cost.

Is it efficient?

Obviously, it’s too soon to say how efficient the car will be but so far I’m impressed. Here’s a screen shot of the first 73.2 miles we drove, which used 0.4 gallons of gas after the battery was depleted. Note that this data is for two days and the battery was recharged once; GM says you should expect about 38 miles of driving on the battery before the gas generator kicks in.

The Volt uses premium gas, which is currently near $4.00 a gallon nearby, so the 0.4 gallons used essentially cost $1.60. Of course, there are electricity costs involved as well when you consider the need to recharge the Volt, even though we over-produce energy with our solar panels. We currently pay just under $0.09 per kWh — not including any distribution costs, taxes or other fees — and we get paid at that same rate for excess energy.

So the 20.1 kWh used for our 73.2 mile drive would cost $1.81 on our electric bill. That works out to $3.41 for this driving session. Our old vehicle averaged 20 mpg and also used premium fuel, so the same 73.2 miles we covered would have cost $14.64 in gasoline. Note that there are many costs and benefits to look at, both short-term and long-term. The above exercise is just one example to view the cost to travel.

Better bring your smartphone!

Although we got a Volt to pair with our solar panels, I’m impressed with the MyLink system in the car, which is also available in other Chevy vehicles. MyLink is used on the 7-inch touchscreen — the same one that monitors energy usage above — through voice commands and GM’s OnStar service.

My wife and I both paired our smartphones with the MyLink system over Bluetooth, which lets us stream audio through the Pandora and Stitcher apps on our handsets. Both iOS(s aapl) and Android(s goog) are supported and there’s even a MyLink application for both platforms. With it we can remotely monitor, stop or start the battery charging process, check our fuel level, start the car and much more.

MyLink will also play music from a USB-connected iOS device or from a USB stick. The system integrates Gracenote’s music database for audio file information such as title or artist and can display cover art as well. All of this music can also be controlled through voice. Say “Play artist” and the system will ask for an artist name. Speak it and the appropriate artist tunes start playing over Bluetooth audio or USB.

I like the idea that the car uses a smartphone for connectivity, mainly because I don’t want my connected car to have an embedded connection of its own. That’s just another potential data plan to pay for and there’s no need for it when a smartphone can provide a 3G or 4G connection to the car. I expect more apps to be supported in MyLink as well, although I’ve already streamed music over Bluetooth from my Rdio app. GM is expected to soon add a connected map service called BringGo that stores maps on a connected smartphone and uses them on MyLink for in-dash navigation.

We’re just starting down this road

Adding a Chevy Volt to our garage may make more sense for us than most others. We have excess electricity and we can go farther on that energy for less than the price of gasoline and with our driving habits we may not need to fill the gas tank for 6 weeks or more. I realize that not everyone fits into this category. But I think it’s important to share the details of this experience to help those interested learn more about the pros and cons of electric vehicles… and solar electric energy too, for that matter.

So as we do more traveling with the Volt, I’ll periodically share more of the experience. Until then, leave any questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them!