Bolting From Hurricane Irma: Maximizing the benefits of solar and an electric vehicle

The official end to Hurricane Season 2017 is today, November 30.  It was an especially unforgiving season and as we reflect back we wanted to share a story on how renewable energy and electric vehicles can offer benefits. The following is an account from two local Florida residents that we interviewed on how they fared through Hurricane Irma with their Chevy Bolt.

The sounds of the guests across the hallway fleeing in the middle of the night are what startled Simon and Jody awake. The couple had evacuated to a hotel in Punta Gorda, Florida because their home was in the projected path of the Category 4 storm. Dazed, they started following the local weather reports and Jody began to read a flurry of text messages on her phone saying, “Get out, it’s headed your way!”  Ironically, the storm had turned and was now projected to hit the west coast of Florida where they had sought refuge. By 2am, they decided it wasn’t worth the risk to stay put.  They tossed the room key to some young storm chasers that came to Punta Gorda with a “good luck guys, be safe” and were headed back to their coastal outpost of Miami, Coconut Grove.

Knowing you have prepared a plan but being flexible and quick to adapt are decisions that literally become life and death. Simon Rose of Coconut Grove and his girlfriend Jody Finver’s experience with Hurricane Irma demonstrates that reality.

The couple have a 9.1 kWh solar system on their home and enjoy the benefit of being “better than net zero” says Simon, meaning that their utility company pays them for generating more electricity than their home consumes. On the Thursday afternoon before the storm, they charged their Chevy Bolt on electricity generated by their rooftop solar, piled into their car with their dog, Walter, and headed for Punta Gorda.  Driving out of town, headed west on US 41, they witnessed gas station after gas station with people waiting in line for “blocks and blocks in the heat” for gasoline.  This same scenario played out all over the state as desperation for fuel to evacuate set in. Simon learned that one neighbor “waited in line for hours to be the third in line when the gas ran out.”

In their Chevrolet Bolt, they crossed the state on the Tamiami Trail. After traveling 175 miles to their destination, they still had 120 miles of range left. After recharging for 30 minutes at the Level 3 Station they were at full range and settled into their temporary home.

Knowing where available charging stations are located is key to a successful evacuation route. Before they evacuated, Simon and Jody created a plan that factored in trying to get “as far west from the center of Irma as possible” explained Simon, which is how they selected Punta Gorda. They then narrowed it down to a hotel based on its proximity to a Level 3 Fast Charging Station. They used PlugShare, a web and phone app that allows you to locate charging stations on a map with details on the level of the charger. Level 2 charging can take several hours to recharge whereas a Level 3 DC fast charger allows you to recharge in about 30 minutes.

After two days at the hotel, relieved at their successful evacuation, however, Simon and Jody awoke in the middle of the night on Saturday, to news that the storm had turned and was now heading their way. They decided to just head back home to Coconut Grove.  They ‘topped off’ the car at the charging station once more to “get every watt in” and hit the road.  Simon described the dark drive home as “eerie”.  “There was a feeling of doom going east with only three cars the whole time on the Tamiami Trail and at least 80 miles of nothing”.  Simon used the vehicle’s one pedal driving (an energy saving feature of the Bolt) and kept a controlled speed to ensure he would get maximum range of the vehicle.  “It gets better efficiency to drive at certain speeds”.

By noon the next day the full force of Hurricane Irma was upon them back in Coconut Grove. The mature tree canopy was in ruins and the boats at the local marina “were completely destroyed” with some of their masts bent over.  In contrast, the couple’s solar rooftop panels (which are rated to withstand a Category 5 storm) were left totally unscathed as was their solar water heater. In fact, after 36 hours without power, they were back online and were able to charge the Bolt again.  They were even able to help ‘jump’ another neighbor’s internal combustible engine (ICE) vehicle battery.

The EV battery from the Bolt can also serve as back-up power. Many EV owners have used an inverter to charge appliances and phone chargers when their power goes out. It works by taking electricity stored in the car’s battery pack and converts it to AC power that  appliances can run on.  Simon and Jody are now considering purchasing an inverter for the next storm. The cost of an inverter ($169.00 on Amazon) is much lower than a gas generator and doesn’t come with the noise and fumes.

In all, Simon describes driving an EV as “such a relief” knowing his solar panels and EV kept him safe and able to get back to ‘normal’ much faster than most in the Sunshine State.

And for Florida folks wanting to go solar and use the sun to power their EVs, they should look for a Solar United Neighbors co-op in their county.

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