Electric-car makers and solar manufacturers have long known they share the same potential customers -- highly educated and affluent people who are fascinated by technology and care about the environment and energy independence.
SunPower (SPWRA), Silicon Valley's largest solar manufacturer, and Ford on Wednesday announced a partnership that is a first for the auto and solar industries. Buyers of a Ford Focus Electric, which will hit the California market later this year, will be offered a deeply discounted rooftop solar system from SunPower.
The program is designed to provide the cars' owners the opportunity to fuel their vehicles with clean energy and have a carbon-free driving experience.
SunPower will offer a 2.5-kilowatt rooftop system, which should provide enough electricity to fuel an electric car that travels about 1,000 miles per month, for less than $10,000, after the federal tax credit. Typically, SunPower charges at least $18,000 for a system of that size.
"This is a great opportunity to take solar mainstream," said SunPower CEO Tom Werner. "We're thrilled to provide electric car owners with a clean source of fuel."
The 2.5 kilowatt system, which should produce about 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, is enough to power the car, and SunPower hopes customers will add additional solar panels to cover their household energy use.
"This is a win-win for the electric grid," said Mike Tinskey, Ford director of Global Vehicle Electrification and Infrastructure, at a press conference at SunPower's Richmond facility, which once housed the largest Ford plant West of the Mississippi. "
The solar panels won't be powering the cars directly: Solar power is produced when the sun is shining, while most EV owners are expected to charge their cars overnight. So in most cases, the solar power will be fed into the electrical grid to offset the cost of the electricity used to charge the car.
Tinskey said that Ford's market research and focus groups showed keen interest in renewable energy from potential buyers of its electric car.
"A lot of people said 'I really like your vehicle, is there any option to power it with renewable energy?'" he said.
One criticism of electric vehicles is that they don't always reduce emissions because more than half of the electricity in the United States is generated by coal-fired power plants. But many early adopters of electric vehicles have taken steps to make their driving experience as clean as possible.
Carl Quinn, who drives an orange Tesla Roadster, installed solar panels on the roof of his San Jose home in 2008 while he was waiting the all-electric Roadster to arrive.
Quinn said his car and his roof panels have raised his profile as a promoter of clean energy.
"The solar panels sit on the house and they work and I don't really think about them," said Quinn. "But my Roadster is a moving advertisement, and when I'm getting in or out of the car people always stop me. One of the first questions they ask is 'Aren't you burning more coal?' and I say 'No, I'm using solar panels.'"
Solar panels and electric vehicles have long been paired by the early adopters who can afford them. Chelsea Sexton, an electric-vehicle marketing expert who worked on GM's EV1 in the 1990s, says that roughly half of the EV drivers from that generation eventually purchased solar panels.
"Typically, the car came first, and then people became more interested in and aware of how their power was made," Sexton said. "Electric vehicles also drastically shorten the payback period of solar panels. So while EVs and solar each stands on its own merits, they make even more sense together."
More than one-third of buyers of the all-electric Nissan Leaf have solar panels on their houses, and Nissan says that another 25 percent of Leaf owners plan to install solar panels within the next five years.
Last month, SolarCity announced a partnership with manufacturer ClipperCreek to provide electric vehicle chargers at SolarCity's 24 offices nationwide.
The 2012 Ford Focus Electric, a sedan that seats five, runs exclusively on electricity. It is expected to have a range of at least 80 miles per charge. Ford will announce the price of the car later this summer, and says it will begin selling it in California later this year.
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/danahull.
Source: Staff reporting