Electric cars and solar panels: is it worth it?

Written by: David Scott


First, feet. Then, horses. Later, bicycles. Next, steam power. Then, Henry Ford. Now, electric.

First, caves. Then, thatch. Later, wood. Next, shingles. Now, solar. 

We could walk through the exact same process for nearly every product there ever was. We could (and likely should) step back, flip through the history books and marvel at the leaps and bounds that humanity has made through innovation alone, but today we’ll only marvel at, and analyze the electric vehicle, and solar panels.

More specifically, we’ll look at how the two pair together and what they could offer you, using hard numbers, solid data and real world examples so you leave this reading feeling informed and confident as you navigate the innovative, exciting world of electric vehicles and solar panels. 

Electric Vehicles

A Quick History 

According to Energy.gov, the history of electric vehicles goes back far longer than most of us may be aware, with the first small batch and crude examples coming about all the way back in the 1800’s.

Around the turn of the century, they were gaining popularity, with the creation of hybrid examples, and with Edison getting involved in the world of battery creation. This popularity lasted until 1912 or so when Henry Ford began mass-producing the automobile, causing a significant decline in electric vehicle popularity. This decline and disinterest lasted till the United States’ energy crisis of the 1970’s…when popularity spiked again. Around 1990, the electric vehicle market saw its last significant pull-back to date, and has only gained traction since.   

Now, even the most iconic gas-guzzling muscle car of all time (the Ford Mustang) has an electric model. Teslas are common sights to see, and you don’t think twice when passing a charging station. In just 200-some years, we have gone through a complete evolution and reinvention of what we originally thought the automobile to be. As electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity, we’re excited to share with you just some of the ways in which they might be a fit for your life.  

Fuel Savings

A 2020 Consumer Report study found that “a typical EV owner who does most of their fueling (charging) at home can expect to save an average of $800 to $1,000 a year on fueling costs over an equivalent gasoline-powered car”. Note that the “fueling at home” phrase is something we’ll touch on a bit more in depth later; that is the pairing of the electric vehicle & solar power – the two joined together in environmentally-friendly, technologically-savvy harmony under one solar panel-covered roof. 

This same report acknowledged that fuel savings will differ (drastically) by size of vehicle, with all three classifications; car, truck and SUV, still showing impressive savings when compared to their gasoline-powered counterparts. Over the lifetime of the vehicle, car owners experience an impressive $9,000 in savings, SUV owners experience approximately $11,000 in fuel savings, and truck owners save up to $15,000 in fuel costs over the vehicle’s lifetime. Not bad. 

Keep in mind as well that this study was done while gas prices averaged in the mid-$2 – low-$3’s, but as we write this article in mid-2022, the average gallon of gas costs $4.32 in the U.S. That single difference changes these fuel saving costs (significantly), continuing to tip the scales in favor of the electric vehicle.

To round out the fuel savings discussion, let’s quickly talk about how much it costs to fill up an electric vehicle at home. 

As of early 2022, according to SolarReviews.com, the average cost of electricity across the U.S. was $0.13/kWh (kilowatt hour). Let’s say you are charging your Nissan Leaf’s (an excellent starter electric vehicle) standard 40kW battery with a 150-mile range. Your grand total comes to just over $5.10 to take your vehicle from drained to full. 

You could get 150 miles of driving distance for less than 70 cents more than what would get you a single gallon of gasoline at the time of this article being written. 

Expected Costs & Buying / Financing Options

For those looking to get into the electric vehicle market, an entry model (again we’ll use the Nisan Leaf) starts at just over $28,000; so yes, the up-front cost of an electric vehicle is more significant than that of a traditional gasoline-powered car, but we just covered an entire section about the savings you experience in fuel costs alone. In addition to the fuel savings, maintenance costs for electric vehicles, which we will not heavily dive into today, are on average 22% lower than when compared to their gas-powered counterparts according to ChargedFleet.com. 

From a dollars standpoint, across the board, the average price for a new electric vehicle is approximately $10,000 more than a new-model gasoline powered vehicle. When considering making the switch, keep in mind that the purchase is not only a long-term investment as a vehicle of any kind is, but it is also an investment in rapidly growing technology, green infrastructure and the planet. Small price to pay for all of that, no?

If, understandably so, a new electric vehicle is out of your price range, consider buying used. At the time of writing this article, retailers like Carmax, Carvana and Edmunds all have extensive inventories of used electric vehicles with hundreds of options between $13 – $18,000; or about half-off average new retail prices. 

Still, we understand that purchasing a car outright – electric or not, is not an option for a lot of people, which is why financing exists, and lucky for you, there are financing companies and options that have been created specifically for electric vehicles. Companies like Clean Energy Federal Credit Union were created with the financing of environmentally-friendly, large-scale purchases in mind. Then, there are innovators like EVLife who exist solely to help you calculate your rebates, taxes and incentives; and once established, offer you a loan based off that information that you can use as a down payment on an electric vehicle, making the initial purchase more easily accessible, and making your monthly payments much more manageable. 

In the world of automobiles, the future is electric. Manufactures, retailers and financial institutions are all rapidly getting on board and we encourage you to do the same.  

Solar Panels

A Quick History  

Tracing its roots back to France in 1839 when physicist Edmond Bequerel observed and discovered the photovoltaic effect, solar power has a rich history, longer than many of us are aware of; in fact, the first patents on solar-powered devices came about as early as 1888. The first solar cell was created by a New York inventor in 1883 and installed on a rooftop (sound familiar?) in 1884. This solar cell achieved an energy conversion rate of 1 – 2%. Today’s cells work between 15 – 20%. 

Fast (way) forward to the 1950’s when innovation hub Bell Laboratories found that materials like silicon were much more efficient than the selenium being used in these early examples of solar power. So, we’re half-way there. The technology was now more efficient, but still far too expensive for the average person to utilize – especially in a home setting. Cue the U.S. energy crisis of the 1970’s when the government stepped in committing brain power and funds to making solar power more accessible for all. 

Fast forward again to present-day where solar power has been growing 50% every year over the past 10 years in the United States. Like electric vehicles, it seems as though the days of fluctuating popularity are past. Solar is here to stay, and that is confirmed in a big way through its continued popularity paired with drastic and steady decreases in installation costs. 

Energy Savings

The biggest thing to remember when discussing anticipated energy savings with solar is that there are a lot of variables that dictate exactly how much a homeowner or family can save over the life of their solar panels. Included in this list of variables are: average sunny number of days in your area, slope and position of your roof/pitch, cost of electricity per kW in your area (keep in mind that this fluctuates annually – typically raising), amount of electricity that you and your family consume on an annual basis, tax breaks and incentives available to you in your state/region, how much of your energy bill you’re able to offset using the solar panels and more. Phew. 

Just below when we look at a hypothetical real-world example blending electric vehicle and solar panel combined ownership, we’ll present specifics as to what savings could look like, but for the general purposes of this section, it should be noted that the average US home saves approximately $1,500 annually on their energy bills when they switch to solar. Over the lifespan of the panels (lets call it 25 years), that means the average U.S. consumer using solar power for their home can expect to save between $35,000 – $40,000 in energy costs!

What could you and your family save? Visit ProjectSunroof (by Google), input your U.S. or Puerto Rican home address and immediately view specific calculations as to how many hours of usable sunlight your home receives, estimates as to square footage available for solar panels and approximate cost savings over the lifetime of the panels! Plus, if we’re being honest, it’s just a really cool tool to look at. 

An Intersection Point

Now that we’ve laid out specifics in both cost and practicality, we want to pair the two; presenting a real-world style hypothetical to help you see what savings are possible when choosing to make the switch to an electric vehicle, with a home (and car) that run on the power of the sun. 

As we’ve stated throughout this article, a myriad of factors (including state-by-state regulations, tax breaks, electricity costs, etc.) dictate exact anticipated costs, so for example’s sake, our family of four resides in rural Iowa. To calculate our facts and figures, we will be using the following data:

  • The average electricity consumption for a U.S. family of four
  • The average annual gasoline consumption for Americans
  • The approximate cost of a solar panel system in rural Iowa capable of covering the average household electricity consumption + the capacity to keep a practical electric vehicle consistently charged. 

Average Electricity Consumption – Per Green Energy Efficient Homes, in 2020, the average U.S. family of four used approximately 27kWh (kilowatt hours) of electricity per day, or 808 kWh per month for a grand total of 9,696kWh per year. 

Solar Cost:

Calculation (from U.S. Sunpower) – Household’s hourly energy requirements x peak sunlight hours / panel’s wattage.

1.13 x 4 (common for Iowa peak sun) = 4.52/150 (low watt panels) = 3.01 cents/kWh x 9,696 = $290.88/year

1.13 x 4 (common for Iowa peak sun) = 4.52/350 (high watt panels) = 1.29 cents/kWh x 9,696 = $96.96/year

Standard Cost:

Calculation – 10.97 cents/kWh (average electricity cost in Iowa) x 9,696 = $1,066.56/year

Average Gasoline Consumption – According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American drove 14,263 miles in 2019. Now, gas expenses based off this mileage total can obviously fluctuate greatly, but for example’s sake, we’ll use today’s average gas price in the U.S. of $4.23/gallon. 

Electric Vehicle Cost (using the Nissan Leaf):

14,263 / 149 (miles per charge) = 95.5 (charges) 

40kWh (battery size) x .11 (Iowa cost of electricity) = $4.40 to charge your battery x 96 charges = $422.40/year

40kWh (battery size) x .03 (low watt panel) = $1.20 to charge your battery x 96 charges = $115.20/year

40kWh (battery size) x .01 (high watt panel) = .40 to charge your battery x 96 = $38.40/year

Gas Powered Vehicle Cost

14,263 / 36 (average MPG of cars on the road) = 396.19 gallons/year

396.19 gallons x $4.23 = $1,675.88/yr

Cost of Solar System to Meet Family Capacity – As opposed to the majority of things we price out when looking at homes, the anticipated cost of solar is not based on home size, rather, the desired kW generating capacity. Our family needs 9,696 kW hours annually without their electric vehicle, and approximately 3,820 more with the vehicle for a total of 13,516 kWh to power your home and vehicle. 

Please keep in mind when looking at these numbers; the up front cost of solar is sizeable and takes between 6 – 10 years to pay off depending upon how quickly your system generates electricity. The average system install cost in Iowa is approximately $15,000. Eligible tax breaks, incentives and discounts can vary by county and even township, so the above (and below) data is simply a breakdown of the expected costs that we can accurately manipulate. 

Comparison Data

Yearly Electricity Cost ComparisonTraditionalSolar (Low Watt)Solar (High Watt)
* the prices are in US Dollar

Is it for You?

In summary, there is more than enough to consider when looking to make the switch to solar power for your home or electric for your vehicle. Typically speaking, and overall, statically are the investments worth it? Far and away, yes. 

This all does not mean that it’s a one-size-fits-all answer though! What we hope that you’ve taken away from this article is some new knowledge and practical tools and calculations to help you approach your solar or electric buying process in the smartest way. 

Before truly dedicating yourself to a purchase, we consider that you run through (at least) the following questions with yourself or your family:

  • Would the change(s) fit comfortably into your lifestyle? 
  • How often do you drive, and to where are you driving?
  • Are electric vehicle charging stations common around you, or would you often be concerned about running out of a charge on your typical commutes?
  • How many sunny days does your area get each year?
  • Do you plan on living in your current home at least 10 years (the high-end of the average solar system pay-back period)?
  • Is your roof pitched appropriately and do you have enough sunny-exposure to install panels to begin with?

Whatever answer(s) you come to, we hope that you leave here today feeling sure in your decision whatever it might be. 

We hope that we have provided you with the tools, suggested resources and data to make these environmentally-friendly, innovative upgrades a true possibility for you.

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