If you’re starting here, a few notes to catch up: At the end of Part 1, I had been super interested in the possibilities and technology between both solar panels and electric vehicles, but it was clear these were impossibly expensive products that weren’t intended for frugal people like me to ever own.
Our old energy generation and vehicle propulsion technologies were just fine for now … right?
Do We Really Need To Change?
Around the same time I was randomly binge-watching the Tesla documentary in part 1, my wife and I were excited to learned our second child was on the way. Bringing a new life into the world often makes parents reflect on what sort of world it will be. When I was reflecting, I was particularly struck when I randomly came across the video for Parkway Drive’s song Dark Days, which opens with the following lyrics:
What will you tell your children when they ask you, “What went wrong?”
How can you paint a picture of a paradise lost to eyes that know only a wasteland?
How will you justify, justify watching the world die?
The music video is haunting, with this Australian heavy metal band performing in an industrial wasteland accompanied by terrifying images of what we’re doing to the place, and it directly led to me frantically starting to research clean technology in a desperate attempt to find something that would assure me my children would have a future on this planet.
A Coal Plant?
Shortly after I started this information gathering quest, I was extremely disheartened to find a small country — I forget which one — had just decided to build a coal power plant. It honestly hit me like a ton of bricks. What right did this country and their leaders have to push us all closer to the brink of ecological disaster through this power plant?
There were all these breakthroughs — wind power, it turned out, was incredibly affordable worldwide. Solar was falling and starting to become competitive with new fossil fuel power plants. Why didn’t these other leaders see this?
And that was just the tip of the iceberg! I saw so many announced breakthroughs like solid-state EV batteries, clear solar panels for use in windows, nuclear fission, green hydrogen … literally hundreds of things. Why did it seem I was the only one who was noticing this?
It all seemed so close. Shouldn’t be we stop building coal plants since this stuff was all so close? Couldn’t we make a small sacrifice for a bigger goal down the road?
After a few weeks of feeling rather down about the situation, I faced an awkward revelation.
My mother was born prematurely in the 1950s. She survived due to the hospital using machines to help her breath and develop … machines that were run thanks to electricity created by coal.
Coal threatened the future of my kids on this planet, but without coal, my mother would have died, and I would have never been born to have kids. Coal was both the reason we were here, and one of the biggest concerns I had for the future.
Suddenly, it felt hypocritical to fault whatever country it was for building the coal plan. The carbon footprint is clearly unfortunate, but it powered a poor area of the country that didn’t have reliable power before.
What would I do if I lived in that area and my future child might need those machines to live? I’d build the damn coal plant.
I realized I couldn’t expect the world to move on to new, clean technology without this being solved for.
Clean Technology (Personal) Financials — Solar
I stopped looking for a new technological breakthrough to save the world, but my various Google searches meant that suddenly, my computer was feeding me ads about putting solar panels on my house, or buying a used electric car.
I realized that this stuff would make almost no difference in the fight against climate change, but I figured it was worth looking. Maybe things were getting a bit cheaper and one day I could justify it. 20 solar panels on my roof weren’t going to solve climate change, but I figured I’d start there, specifically due to the life goal that I still live by: Can I reduce my monthly payments to the point my passive income is greater than my expenses?
I was floored to find out that solar pricing had fallen low enough that putting a series of panels on my roof would save me a huge percentage of my electric bill every month. I was in. Our solar panels were signed shortly thereafter. I ended up saving even more money than anticipated, because we were the first residential solar that the company did, which included a Sense home monitor, which allowed me to find new ways to reduce my electrical consumption even further.
I used the Sense monitor to go room by room, checking on what was using power and how. I cut my “always on” to around 50 watts from around 400 — a difference of 252 kWh per month. Beyond replacing a couple of simple things — my old internet router was the source of about 200 of those watts alone — I was saving even more than I expected.
The savings made me start calculating what an electric car would add to the load on the house, and since buying gas was another one of the payments that I hated to make, this seemed like an interesting idea. It appeared my 252 kWh of electricity savings per month could be used to power a Nissan Leaf for … nearly 1000 miles per month?! That couldn’t be right … could it?
Clean Technology (Personal) Financials — EVs
The timing was right. Both my wife and I had old cars that seemed to require constant work, so when Google told me a dealership near me had a 2013 Nissan Leaf, and with the encouragement of my wife, I checked it out.
It was better than anything I had expected. The instant torque was great, but I loved more than anything the silence. I left thinking it would be a great “around-town” car for when we needed to replace one of ours.
A week later, we ended up near the dealership with an hour to kill, so I suggested we stop so my wife could test drive the Leaf and see what she thought. After pulling in, we looked at the car and she suddenly suggested I buy it — no test drive or trade-ins. It was cheap enough — about $6,000 — that we could get it, try it for a bit, and resell it with almost no money out. We could keep both of our cars for the time being in case it didn’t work.
Later that day, I was driving our Nissan Leaf home. I loved the silence of it so much that I knew that, if it worked financially, I never wanted another gas car. Alas, I didn’t get to drive the Leaf all that often, as my wife adopted it as her main car almost immediately — her car was in worse shape than mine. I set to work determining if it was a justifiable purchase.
For the entire first year we owned it, I diligently tracked the actual mileage used, cost of electricity consumed, local gas prices, and then combined them to see if it was possible to save $1,000 or more per year on fuel compared to my wife’s old car, the price I had estimated we could save.
Turns out, $1,000 was far easier to save than I had anticipated. Not including savings from oil changes and not getting a snack at the gas station we no longer visited, we surpassed $1,000 in savings within 39 weeks.
Combined with the Sense monitor and solar power, not just had we more than halved our gas bill every month, we had cut our monthly electricity usage even with the electric car, and our solar array was generating a huge percentage of that bill, too.
Suddenly, products that were better for the environment were super easy to justify because they also happened to be better for my wallet … and it was easy to get someone’s attention by telling them I switched to this technology due to its superiority. I shared with my friends regular updates on the savings, which so far has led to three friends having put solar on their roofs, and enough of my friends driving Leafs that at one point the local Nissan dealership would call me to tell me when they came in, just in case I knew someone else who was looking.
There was just one problem — at the time I got this stuff, the residential solar industry kept going through restructurings, and it was questionable if the industry was viable long term. The Nissan Leaf I purchased lost more than 80% of its MSRP value in the three years between when it was new and when I bought it.
These products might be good for me, but it sure seemed they weren’t great for the companies producing them. Now that I liked this stuff, I wanted it to get cheaper in the future, and the thought that it wasn’t financially viable bothered me.
Until Next Time…
You are forgiven if you are left wondering how I spent an entire post about “the importance of Tesla’s financial success” talking about my experience with fatherhood, an Australian heavy metal band, a coal plant, residential solar, and a Nissan Leaf, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that in the third and final installment.
Instead, it’s worth pointing out that humans aren’t going to make massive changes to our lives unless there are strong reasons to do so. I can’t imagine many paying $1.5 million for solar panels to power a standard-sized home. It would be hard to justify a low-range Nissan Leaf at new MSRP pricing.
Technology by itself isn’t viable. Potential customers need to analyze their own situations to determine if the value is worth whatever the cost is. I determined the price points for my solar array and Nissan Leaf were right, and by providing information to others, I was happy to see others determine the same thing.
Discovering technological breakthroughs is exciting. Getting to use some in your everyday life is exciting. But without one far more boring key, it won’t change the world.
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