Once we disabuse ourselves of the notion that solar roof panels have to "pay us back," they offer one of the best cash-flow investments we can possibly make if we consider the value of the annual after-tax savings in electrical energy costs. The number of solar households increased by 50 percent in 2012, which constitutes a "tipping point" in my book. I contributed to that statistic, but I didn't stop with roof panels. Recently I took delivery of an all-electric Tesla sedan -- a noble experiment for which I had signed up years ago as a leap of faith.
Setting aside its unique attributes, for a moment anyway, the most exhilarating aspect of ownership is the fact that I'm through buying gas or paying for expensive routine service required by conventional cars of the internal combustion persuasion. This vehicle is so simple. The two basic components consist of a battery pack about the size of a 4x8 sheet of plywood that makes up the floorboard. Then, between the rear wheels is the electric engine about the size of two basketballs stuck together.
That's basically it. No spark plugs, radiators, gas tanks, or any of the myriad of components that break or need service on a conventional car. It does have a few electric servo motors for air conditioning compressors and power steering, etc., but nothing that compares to the complexity of a conventional car.
What is complex is the information system with a touch screen about the size of a PC's. It sits in the middle of the dashboard and offers up everything from Internet radio, newspapers, Bluetooth phone connection, and all of the control systems of the car -- a classic expression of Silicon Valley's contribution to the auto industry.
But that's not all. The car senses when you're approaching and the otherwise flush door handles pop out.
As for the range, and its attendant "range anxiety," so far so good. I was given a couple hundred miles of battery power at the Fremont factory where I picked it up, and after driving 150 miles or so around town I got an extension cord from Ace Hardware and plugged it in to the 220 volt outlet -- the same one we use for our dryer.
In a week, PG&E will have turned on a special outlet in my garage that distributes power through the night at a cost of next to nothing.
So what does my recent indulgence have to do with retirement planning? Well, here's the deal. I drive about 20,000 miles a year in a car that normally gets around 20 miles per gallon. So, there's a cost of about $4,000 right there.
Then, I keep cars until they're long in the tooth because it saves money, so I can count on spending at least $2,000 more per year on service and repairs. This car will need no gas and next to no service -- a few fluids, some brake pads and tires. So, I'm saving $6,000 a year.
By comparison, let's say you spend $30,000 on a conventional car and pay about $6,000 a year to pay off the loan over five years (forget interest for a moment, which is low right now anyway). The Tesla sedan will cost over $60,000, but that additional $30,000 is essentially free! It's paid for or offset by the savings in gas and service.
In effect, you have a real cool car for less than the price of a Prius. It might also be worth a lot more when you trade it in. To be fair to other electric car manufacturers, a less expensive car like the Nissan Leaf is paid for entirely by the gas and service savings over the years.
I know this is tortured logic, but hopefully you get my point. Free operating costs translate into a rationale for paying more than you might otherwise have coughed up for basic transportation. Unlike Warren Buffett, who has named his corporate jet "The Indefensible," there is more than just a toehold of economic rationale for splurging a little bit on a car like this -- or buying a basic version to test the waters.
A tour of Tesla's Fremont factory indicated that its capacity could easily be five times greater than the 20,000 units they plan to make and sell this year. In a few years, they could be making over 100,000 cars right here in the Bay Area.
Our ultimate reward for this game-changing type of vehicle is best summed up by paraphrasing Charlie Wilson, a former General Motors chief, who said, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Today, it would read, "What's good for Tesla is good for the planet."