Both the Volt and the Leaf-owner: “this is a Dream Come True”

Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a group that promotes plug-in vehicles, proudly displays his new Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Mr. Kramer also uses solar energy at his home, which helps pay to power his cars.

Voices | Felix Kramer

In 2006 Felix Kramer, founder of, the California Cars Initiative, became the first consumer owner of a plug-in hybrid in the world – a converted 2004 Toyota Prius. Last week his family became the first consumer household with two new plug-in vehicles, a Chevrolet Volt and a Nissan Leaf.

In an interview with the Solar Home & Business Journal, Mr. Kramer talked about how he came to be among the first to own either car, what he thinks of them and how he charges them for free.

Let’s talk about GM first. GM announced in January 2007 they were going to build the Chevy Volt. They said that they were going to deliver this to consumers in late 2010. And they made that deadline. Every other carmaker, small or large, that has announced a plug-in vehicle has been delayed. To their credit, GM did a great job getting their car to market, on time and a great car.

To do that they took some shortcuts. They built it on top of the Cruze platform. They ended up with a four-seater rather than a five-seater. They can do a lot better in Version 2. I think they can make as much improvement as happened between the first and second generations of the Prius, in the next few years.

I had a lot of conversations and exchanges with the GM technical team and marketing team over time. We invited them to come up to San Francisco and meet with plug-in vehicle advocates and experienced drivers. Tony Posawatz, their line director for development, met with us in San Francisco in August 2008. Other organizations like Plug In America did similar kinds of things. We all had a lot of contact with the Chevy Volt development team.

As part of that they realized that it would be a good idea to sell me, as an advocate, a car early on. I was fortunate enough to get the ninth vehicle that came off the line for production. I got that on Dec. 22, and we had a celebration up in Novato, where I and Ron Gremban, my technical partner, and Andy Frank, the inventor of the plug-in hybrid, all got our vehicles early on. Not the first in the country, but among the first in California.

Since then I’ve put 2,200 miles on it. I made two long trips from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe and back without refueling, something that never could have been done by a plug-in before. Tahoe is 225 miles away with 8,000 miles of elevation going over the Sierras. The Tesla Roadster, which has a 245-mile range, would have to stop and refuel along the way.

It’s quite
to me that
for two-car
it’s no problem
in any way
for the second
vehicle to be
an all-electric
because that’s
the car used
for local

We’ve achieved the big dream of getting plug-in hybrids to market, as well as my personal dream of having a car that I can drive around the Bay Area, all electric, all the time, but that I can also take to Tahoe whenever I want because I like to ski and paddleboard. I can take the same car there, and on the way it turns into a hybrid. Then when I get there it’s back to running on electricity. This is a dream come true.

It’s a great car to drive too. It’s fun, peppy, with a lot of advanced technology features. And you can get in it and drive it just like any other car. Really. All that someone has to tell you is, “Push the start button” and “Here’s the gear shift.” The lights, everything else is the same, just like a regular car. There’s a lot more to it if you want to, but you don’t have to know anything else. And that’s also true with the Nissan Leaf.

Nissan decided that they were going to leapfrog all internal combustion engine technology and go to mass production of all-electric vehicles. They announced the Nissan Leaf 100-mile range, all-electric vehicle. They said they were going to build a lot of these. The first was delivered in the U.S. in early December. I got my car Jan. 25 from the same dealer that delivered the first one in the United States. My wife and I are now a two plug-in family.

It’s quite obvious to me that for two-car families, it’s no problem in any way for the second vehicle to be an all-electric because that’s the car used for local driving. There’s an enormous market of tens of millions for all-electric vehicles despite Americans’ so-called range anxiety.

Cars are sold as giving you freedom. People go into a dealer and say about an all-electric car, “Oh, I have to plug it in. What if I want to drive it across the country someday? I won’t buy this car.” That mentality is very deeply seated, and that’s part of the reason that the plug-in hybrids could be the primary platform for plug-in vehicles for the next decade or two.

In the meantime, people who get a plug-in hybrid as their second vehicle may find themselves asking, “Why did I pay for this engine, I’m just driving it electrically.” In our family, the Leaf will be the car my wife and I will pick first every day when we’re in the Bay Area. When we’re both driving or we want to travel beyond the range of the Leaf, we’ll take the Volt.

The Volt
and Leaf
have very

The Volt and Leaf have very different personalities. They’re quirky in different ways. The Leaf has optimized its performance differently than the Volt, and its design is more conscious of finding every single way to save energy because every bit of energy is precious.

The Leaf has a lower retail price, so it doesn’t have some of the bells and whistles. It doesn’t have the leather heated seats of the Volt, for instance. I’ve always been very skeptical of heated seats, but it turns out that it’s a very good idea because you can postpone turning on the main heating system. Making heat uses a lot of energy.

I haven’t had much chance to really compare them. They each have different solutions to displaying data and navigation systems and so forth. GM has the OnStar system, which is very advanced. Today GM announced they are going to sell people a replacement rearview mirror that includes OnStar. They’re finally going to make full use of this undervalued asset. That’s really smart. Not only GM cars, but any car, will be able to have the OnStar system, which turns any car into a networked car.

As part of the Chevy Volt program, Chargepoint America from Coulomb is distributing over 4,000 charging systems to homes across America in seven states. I got one of those.

But let’s back up. One of the best things that’s happened in EVs is that all the carmakers got together on one charging system. It’s called J1772; EV people call it the J-plug. It’s a universal system, so you don’t have a VHS vs. Betamax situation or conductive vs. inductive problem, as you had in the previous generation of electric vehicles. All vehicles will charge using the J-plug for either 120- or 240-volt charging.

Basically you can plug either of these cars in anywhere to any 120-volt, 15-amp circuit. It’s better if it’s a GFCI – ground-fault circuit interrupter – but it doesn’t have to be. You can plug it in any time, though it will take longer on 120.

The 240 is what most people have as their clothes dryer outlet in or near their garage. The Coulomb charging stations are being wired in at 240 to homes so that you get a faster charge. I have available 240 and 120. In general, I will charge the Nissan Leaf at 240 because at 120 it will take more than 20 hours to charge. It will take about eight hours charging at 240. The Leaf has a bigger battery than the Volt.

The Chevy Volt can charge in four hours at 240 and eight to 10 hours at 120. So that’s not a problem. With the Chevy Volt, if you ever don’t have the opportunity or place to charge it you can still drive the car. My general strategy is to use the two different systems to charge each car, but if I know for sure I’m going to drive the Chevy Volt, and I want it fully charged and I’m not going to be using the Leaf, then I’ll charge it at 240. They both have long cords.

Each car also comes equipped with a 120-volt portable cable set, so you can take either of these cars to your friend’s house or anywhere and plug in there at 120. Also a network of charging stations around the Bay Area and the country is beginning to be built.

When I got my Prius converted in 2006 it became really obvious to me that it made sense for me to go solar on my home. The solar system could offset all of our daily use of electricity.

My wife and I both work from home, and we have one or two rooms air conditioned, so we opted for rooftop solar – a 4-kilowatt system – and we switched to a time-of-use rate. All our expensive electricity in the daytime and summer is zeroed out. We mostly charge the cars at night, at low-cost rates. In fact, we produce enough electricity so we basically turn our meter back to zero.

The state is just now implementing a net metering protocol that enables the meter not just to go to zero but to run backward and to pay people as generators of electricity, though not at a particularly high rate per kilowatt hour. Because of my solar system, these cars basically run for free.

If you’re using your rooftop solar system not only to displace the electricity you use in your house but also to displace the gasoline you would be buying otherwise, you’re going to get a quicker payback on the photovoltaic system.

In the future, we’re going to see cars even more connected than they are now. In the future we’ll see an evolution of vehicle-to-building connectivity that will enable the utilities and the home to all work together. Ultimately we may even use car batteries while they are parked as part of an energy efficiency strategy for the building and the electric utility.

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