Solar power touts cars that run on sun

Cory Sullivan, co-owner of High Noon Solar in Grand Junction, operates three electric cars, including this sleek Tesla Roadster. By using photovoltaic systems to generate electricity that charges the car batteries, the firm converts sunlight into transportation. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Cory Sullivan eases slowly into the driver’s seat of the low-slung sports car, a maneuver that looks practiced, like slipping on a pair of favorite jeans.

Sullivan backs out of the parking spot and steers onto an empty street. He’s waited for this moment to punch the accelerator and takes a knowing glance at the reaction of his passenger. The response is nearly instant: As the car bounds forward, driver and passenger slam back into their seats. Hard.

Remarkably, there’s no roar of internal combustion — only the whistle of wind overhead and the whine of rubber on asphalt passing quickly beneath.

Putting a sleek Tesla Roadster through its paces constitutes an exhilarating experience. But Sullivan is out to educate as well in teaching a lesson about the capabilities of electric cars up close and personal. And a Tesla Roadster is about as far evolved from a golf cart as a jet fighter from a Wright brothers Flyer.

As co-owner of High Noon Solar in Grand Junction, Sullivan takes his point a step further in demonstrating the conversion of sunlight into transportation. Photovoltaic systems generate the electricity that recharges the battery. “I just think the solar-powered electric car is pretty darn cool.”

To be sure, a Tesla Roadster constitutes a jaw-dropping billboard on wheels in advertising what can be accomplished in building electric cars. But far more utilitarian vehicles are available or soon will be, Sullivan said. The prospect of an electric Cadillac is particularly significant, he said. “When a Cadillac gets a plug, that’s a serious corner we’ve moved around.”

High Noon Solar operates three electric cars — the Tesla, a Ford all-electric pickup and a Chevrolet Volt equipped with both an electric engine and gasoline-powered generator for backup.

Sullivan and other members of the staff at High Noon Solar have put about 10,000 miles on the Volt over the past 18 months and filled the small gas tank only a handful of times. By that measure, Sullivan estimates the vehicle gets better than 250 miles per gallon.

Artwork on Volt advertises High Noon Solar and fact the vehicle essentially runs on sunlight. Company staff drive the Volt to meetings with customers, several of whom have purchased Volts themselves, Sullivan said.

Established in 2005, High Noon Solar has installed an estimated 6 megawatts of solar power. Thanks in large part to the increasing popularity of leasing arrangements that require no money up front, the company installed about 4 megawatts in what was a busy 2012, Sullivan said. Business has been evenly divided between residential and commercial installations.

The company serves as a dealer for SunPower, a manufacturer Sullivan said holds the world record for the most efficient solar panels.

Electric cars offer a number of advantages, Sullivan said, chief among them the savings associated with not having to refuel them with gasoline.

But recharging electric cars with photovoltaic systems that also power and heat homes offers additional advantages in getting more bang from the buck for installing solar and further reducing the time required to recoup that investment, he said. “What better gas station than a garage?”

As technology advances, electric cars will perform even better, drive farther and cost less, Sullivan said.

He also envisions a point in the not-too-distant future when millions of electric cars parked in garages for the night will serve as battery backups capable of feeding power back to the grid to meet demand.

For now, the sleek lines and rapid acceleration of a Tesla Roadster are impressive enough to grab the attention of   even those most skeptical about the performance of electric cars.

But with exhilaration comes what Sullivan hopes will be education and, ultimately, acceptance.