Charging the Future: How Solar Power Can Support the Electric Vehicle Revolution

Ed Rottmann
Solar power and electric vehicles

During a time when the roar of gas-guzzling engines is giving way to the quiet hum of electric vehicles (EVs), a revolution is unfolding on our streets. With over 2 million EVs already cruising U.S. roads and numbers set to soar, people tend to ask: How do we power this electric dream without overloading our grid? 

The answer lies in a game-changing alliance between EVs and solar energy. This isn’t just about keeping the lights on; it’s about reimagining our energy landscape through the lens of distributed generation. Solar panels not only ease the grid’s burden but also unlock unprecedented economic and environmental benefits. 

As the adoption of EVs increases, grid capacity and the amount of electricity available to charge these vehicles is going to be a potential bottleneck for wider adoption. Relying solely on traditional power plants and transmission infrastructure for this increased amount of electricity would not be the best way to avoid this bottleneck, in my opinion. Distributed generation – or smaller electrical generation sites at homes or businesses– would greatly increase our ability to add the necessary capacity that these EVs will need. Solar is the most cost-effective way to create this scale of distributed generation.  

There are three reasons for this:

  • Economics
  • Additional capacity to the grid (via distributed solar generation)
  • Sustainability

Let’s look into the economics of charging your EV with home or commercial solar. The United States Department of Transportation estimates the average American drives 13,500 miles a year (or 40 miles per day). If you drive a gas or diesel powered car, you will end up paying just under $2,000 per year for that. If you drive an EV, you will need around 50 kWh of electricity for every 200 miles. That figure equates to an annual amount of around $400 to drive your car in the state of Tennessee if you’re using grid electricity. A person only needs 5-8 400-watt panels to charge their EV and these panels last 30 years. If a person can charge their car solely from the panels on their home, the cost savings are substantial over the life of the panels. 

On top of the economic benefits, this also keeps the grid from having to increase the capacity to charge these vehicles. Utilizing small commercial solar is key in this scenario. Most people will want to charge their cars similarly to how they charge their cell phones – when they get home from work. As we know, when the average person gets home from work, solar energy production is not at its peak. The two solutions to this problem are utilizing solar powered EV chargers at your place of work or a small energy storage system at your home

Transitioning to an EV already has significant benefits to the environment. A study by the University of Michigan and Ford Motor Co. found that battery-electric vehicles have a “64 percent lower cradle-to-grave life cycle emissions” than internal combustion vehicles. This leads us to the question of where the electricity comes from that you charge your car from. Solar energy is able to generate power without giving off any dangerous emissions. While there is some carbon footprint from producing and distributing solar panel infrastructure, the energy produced from solar panels is clean and free of pollutants, and it emits no greenhouse gasses. 

When analyzing how EVs and solar electricity can reduce our carbon footprint as a nation, it is also important to note that utility scale solar (large installations tied to the grid) is significantly helping both our overall grid capacity and reducing our overall greenhouse emissions.   As we continue to adopt EVs, there are going to be instances where individuals need to rely on grid power to charge their vehicles, so continuing to increase solar electricity on a large scale as well as distributed scale is critical. TVA, the electricity producer where I live, has cut its emissions in half since 2005 by utilizing clean energy technologies. The three-pronged approach of EV adoption, utility scale solar, and distributed solar is the best way to get us to our aggressive carbon reduction goals of 2035.  

The technology surrounding EVs and solar has increased tremendously over the last few years, and I believe it will continue to do so. There has been significant investment from the federal government and the private sector to get us where we need to be. There are still hurdles to overcome as we transition to clean technology, but utilizing distributed solar is one of the key things that can enable broader EV use. The ever-growing population of EVs requires a portfolio approach to electricity generation, but one of those approaches that needs to grow is distributed solar.