Senior housing complex on mission to power electric vehicles

Sand River Cohousing, formerly called Eldergrace, is a group of 28 houses on Cerrillos Road. Residents are age 55 and older. Many are on fixed incomes and rely on Social Security.

A senior housing development in Santa Fe has an ambitious dream already under way to power shared electric vehicles off of a shared solar photovoltaic system.

They share a commitment to living lightly on the planet and reducing their carbon emission footprint. Their development, finished in 2009 by the Santa Fe Housing Trust, is built with energy-efficient homes and passive solar design. Some have photovoltaic systems on their roofs to power their homes.

The residents wanted to do more, said Pauline Sargent, the group’s spokesperson. “We wondered how could we be more energy efficient?,” she said.

Sharing electric vehicles powered by the sun instead of gas seemed the next logical step.

They worked with Santa Fe idea guy and solar proponent Dan Baker on financing the project. Baker, who has converted one old gas car into an electric vehicle, helped craft state legislation that would have helped people like Sand River residents pay the upfront cost for solar photovoltaic systems. The program is stalled at the federal level for the moment.

The residents couldn’t benefit from the state and federal tax credits that help reduce the costs of renewable-energy systems. “As elders on Social Security, it is rare we would have taxes high enough to take advantage of the tax credits,” Sargent said.

So Baker suggested a third-party arrangement.

Baker and a silent partner at Sand River formed a company PV4EG (photovoltaic for Eldergrace) and then invested money to purchase the solar power system from local installers Positive Energy. On Thursday, the group celebrated the completion of a grid-tied 5.52 kilowatt photovoltaic system on the roof of the development’s Common House. PV4EG owns the photovoltaic system and the Sand River residents lease it from the company. Baker and the silent partner receive the tax breaks and the renewable-energy credits from Public Service Company of New Mexico.

The system powers the Common House and produces enough electricity to charge up to four electric vehicles. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a renewable-energy proponent, was on hand to help the group celebrate Thursday.

Now the residents are figuring out how they will purchase and share electric cars they plan to power off the system. They launched a second limited liability company called PV2EV. Cars will be purchased through the company and jointly owned by the Sand River Cohousing residents.

“The idea of sharing cars is a definite challenge for a group of older individuals who are used to having a car for his or her use only, but we are working on this,” Sargent said in a statement released for the group. “We have done a few experiments of ‘virtual’ car sharing where we drove our own cars, but when we drove we signed out a ‘virtual’ car on a real-time schedule.”

Once they figure out how many electric vehicles they need, they have to come up with financing for them. “We would love it if some dealership or some manufacturer would say we’ll plaster this car with our ads and lease this to you for a small amount of money to promote EV around Santa Fe,” Sargent said.

For his part, Baker hopes this is the first of many innovative projects for bringing solar to more people. “I’d like to work with more local non-profits to install PV now that we have this funding model and legal template figured out,” said Dan Baker in a statement.