Using Your Solar Panel Array to Power an Electric Vehicle

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Solar and electric vehicles go together like peanut butter and jelly? That’s what Tesla’s investors and many other heavy-hitters in the energy business believe. They call EVs “the gateway drug to solar.” It’s actually a pretty common idea—owing mostly to the popularity of solar among electric vehicle owners.

In fact, a study commissioned by Ford found that EV drivers vastly prefer solar panels. A surprising 83 percent of drivers surveyed said they either own a solar energy system already, or would seriously consider purchasing one in the future. That’s a pretty high percentage, especially when you consider that market predictors were pegging the overall number of solar-powered homes at one million by the end of 2016—a small percentage of the total households in the US.

When you think about it, it makes sense that EV drivers would start making the vehicle-to-solar connection. After all, when your fuel source is electricity, you start thinking a lot about where that power comes from. If your goal is to truly drive clean, fueling your car with a bunch of coal-powered electricity isn’t exactly the greenest option. In fact, when you compare the two fuel sources, coal actually produces more pounds of carbon dioxide for every million BTUs than gasoline, according to the Energy Information Administration.

So it seems going solar is a natural progression for EV drivers. If you own an EV, you may have even found yourself asking the very same question: With a sufficient solar array, would you be able to power your car with free energy from the sun? With the average homeowner spending around $2,000 a year on gasoline, it’s a very savvy question to ask. Let’s dive in and see!

electric car

Most Solar Homes Don’t Have Zero Emissions

If you don’t really care about hitting zero emissions and just want to supplement your EV’s fuel with some clean power, you can simply put solar panels on your home and park your car in front of the charger. However, for those that would like to make their driving 100 percent green, you’ll need to understand a few things about your home and your car’s energy use.

If you’re new to solar, the first thing to realize is that panels usually can’t offset your home’s entire energy consumption. Most homes are too large or too inefficient to successfully power on PV alone. And since solar storage systems aren’t yet powerful enough to be completely independent from the grid, your home is probably running on some sort of carbon-powered fuel, at least part of the time.

To get your EV off the grid, you’ll need to know about how much energy you can reliably predict you’ll get from your solar panels, then calculate that against the amount of energy you consume with your car—which leads us to the next topic.

How Many Kilowatts Does Your Electric Vehicle Consume Annually?

The next thing you’ll need is the number of kilowatt hours your car consumes in a given time frame. Let’s say, for this experiment, your car needs around 2,520 kilowatts to operate annually, which is the average General Motors lists for its Chevrolet Volt. For the record, that’s less than it takes to run most home’s water heaters or central air conditioning all year.

You’d need to produce the equivalent with your panels to offset your use—but keep in mind, your real kilowatt consumption may vary depending on how many miles you drive your car and how you drive it, since it takes more energy to rev up.

The tricky thing is, it can be difficult to estimate your solar production until you actually get a professional PV installer out to your home. Solar numbers vary vastly depending on your location and your roof, but if you’re interested in learning more about your home’s solar potential, you should check out a solar calculator.

solar ev charging station

The Future of Solar Charging for EVs

Given the above, you may have already concluded that finding your car’s actual fuel breakdown can be kind of an imprecise science. A more streamlined way may be to have a separate solar-powered charging station with its own independent array and backup electricity source.

And that does seem to be one way the future of EVs is headed. For instance, in San Francisco last year, an organization called Change Across America installed three different solar-powered public charging stations for electric vehicles. The panel on top effectively turns the station into a carport to protect your vehicle while you charge, while collecting absolutely emissions-free energy for your next jaunt down the block. With any luck, you may just see these coming to a neighborhood near you one of these days!