A Place In The Sun
Living off the grid isn’t easy, but it is possible. And Jason King wants to show you how
By Anu Yagi
“Buildings, too, are children of Earth and Sun.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
Down a winding private drive on Maui’s northeastern arch, Jason King’s solar-powered home is perched amidst his manicured lawn and gardens, overlooking a malie bay. Atop his luxury hale are 23 solar panels that power his entire life. With a dual Outback inverter and 24-count battery bank, it’s a robust system that King says, “powers my car, phat sound system, home movie theater, laundry, refrigerator, hot tub, sauna—every single luxury there is.”
“This is groundbreaking,” says King, his passion apparent. “I’m off oil. And it was totally feasible.” King says he feels it’s his “duty” to “let the world know that this can be done.”
King points to the zenith of his sustainable-living achievements, his Chevrolet Volt—a lithium-ion battery-powered hybrid vehicle, rated by the EPA as the most fuel-efficient car sold in the U.S. King says it’s the only Volt in the state, and possibly the only totally solar-powered car in the world.
“I’ve been trying to live a sustainable lifestyle for years now,” says King. “But still driving a frickin’ car was killing me. So this, this was it. This was the last big step.”
Taking that last big step took time, money and guts.
“Because no one was doing it, there was no one to ask if it could be done,” King says. Not only is the Volt “so technologically advanced” that if it were to break he’d likely have to ship it the Mainland for repairs, but King’s foremost concern was how to devise a system that would effectively power a vehicle that requires “13 kilowatt hours [kwh] from empty to full—like having three hot tubs running at once for four hours.”
After exhaustive research and assistance—namely from Michael Schwarz of Sunstation LLC, who “worked his ass off and did an amazing job”—King has pioneered the successful implementation of “technology that has been here forever.” And having worked out a lot of the logistical kinks, King wants to share what he’s learned. “People who are scared and think they can’t afford it need to realize that they can’t afford not to.”
“The day, water, sun, moon, night—I do not have to purchase these things with money.” – Plautus
“The whole concept of buying gas that’s been raped out of the earth, refined and shipped across the planet—and we go to war for it—it’s so unnecessary! It’s ludicrous!” exclaims King. And, he says, having an electric car while “still plugging into the grid and getting power from diesel generators” negates a lot of the environmental benefit.
Only nine solar panels were added to King’s system to power his Volt. Nine panels cost him around $7,000, equal to about two years’ worth of would-be gas expenditures. “That means in two years not only is my driving going to be pollution free, it’s going to be free,” he says.
“I get about 50 miles [per charge],” King says, adding he only exceeds that range “maybe once every month or two. I’ve used two gallons to go 2,000 miles.”
“[Unlike] a lot of other electric cars, you don’t have ‘range anxiety,’ scared you’re going to get stuck on the side of the road,” he says. “If I do need to go beyond my range, there’s a little generator [and] I get 40 miles per gallon. I can go 350 miles without stopping.”
The car comes with a 120 volt cord for charging, but King has added a 240 volt charger. He says he charges his car during the day, meaning the energy is “going from the panels straight to the car and barely taxing my batteries at all.”
“I have to say, I’ve never been a big Chevy fan,” he admits, “but they did an amazing job on this car. It’s hella fun to drive, it doesn’t make any noise, and the cool thing about it is electric motors develop all their torque instantly. So when you hit the accelerator—not the gas, but the accelerator—it’s like, boom!”
“Stand a little less between me and the sun.” – Diogenes
“I kind of got screwed because I was impatient—but it was impatience for a good reason,” says King. Before buying the Volt, King says he first tried biodiesel, “but the local fuel available on Maui damaged my vehicles and my generator.”
Frustrated, King decided to try the hybrid route. (Laughing, he adds, “I asked all my friends, ‘If I drove a $100,000 Tesla—but it was all solar powered—would I still look like a pretentious douche bag?’ And without hesitation, all of them said ‘yes.’”)
Disturbed by the “lackadaisical” response from local Chevy dealerships—and facing upwards of “several years” before he could buy one in-state—King shipped a Volt in from California.
“The car is expensive,” says King of the Volt’s $40,280 sticker price. “But it has a [maximum] $7,500 federal tax rebate, and you can get a $4,500 Hawaii rebate. That brings the car down to the low $30,000 range, which is what any decent new car costs.”
However, King says he was denied both tax benefits. On the federal level, the New Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit applies, as King explains, “only if you owe $7,500 in taxes.” Locally, King was ineligible because he didn’t purchase his Volt in Hawaii. “I would have loved to keep the money in Hawaii and support the local Maui car dealership that’s going to be servicing it,” he says. “So basically, I got punished for being one of the first ones.”
King feels he was penalized for being a pioneer, and expresses frustration at the roadblocks he’s encountered. “If our government really gave a shit and really wanted to do something to save the environment, rather than subsidizing oil, they would subsidize this for every house in America,” he says. “How many jobs would that create? And instead of paying your electric bill every month, you’d pay a little bit back towards the government. It would be a win, win, win, win situation.”
“At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun.” – Nicolaus Copernicus
“I don’t have any internal combustion engines anymore,” says King, pointing to a neat row of electric tools. “Lawnmower, chainsaw, weed whacker—it’s all powered by the sun. It’s mind boggling to think of all the things that are done with the sun’s energy. That the very sun that grows the grass provides the power to the tools to cut the grass… that inside, the freezer is turning the sun into cold.”
Outside, King’s hot tub has a view of the last breaching humpbacks of the season, and runs on a solar system independent from the house (which King says would otherwise have an operating cost of $150 per month, given Maui’s electricity rates). A small solar panel powers a pump that simply circulates water through a black plastic lining stretched out in a sunny spot on the lawn.
What King is doing may seem ambitious. And it is. But here’s what he hopes everyone takes away: “What I’m doing may cost more in the beginning, but in the end you’re saving money and doing the environment a great service.”
A version of this article appeared in print on April 21, 2011, on page 10 of MauiTime (volume 14, issue 44; annual Green Issue)
READ MORE FROM THE GREEN ISSUE 2011
CLICK HERE to read “Earthly Events” by Anu Yagi
CLICK HERE to read “Soiled Plans” by Jacob Shafer