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How many solar panels are needed to transition from gasoline to EVs?

One question we often get asked is how electric vehicles will affect the electricity grid in Alberta: does the grid have enough capacity? And how can we charge these EVs from clean sources? Are they efficient enough?

I did a bit of a thought experiment to figure this out (sources below). 

Gasoline: Not All It’s Fracked Up To Be

Gas cars are not super efficient. If we look at energy that comes out of the ground as oil, piped to a refinery, refined into gasoline, trucked to a gas station, burned in a combustion engine, ran through a transmission and differential to the wheels, only about 14% of the initial energy from the oil is actually used generate motion. The rest is lost along the way or as heat from the engine.

By contrast, with an electric vehicle in Alberta, our electricity comes mostly from a mix of natural gas, some wind and hydro, and a sprinkling of solar. Natural gas comes out of the wellhead, is piped to a generator, and burned in a turbine. Exhaust gas heat is used to power the combined cycle turbine, then power is pushed over the transmission grid to the EV chargers, stored in the car’s battery, and then used to spin the direct drive electric motor. That process is about 30% efficient at turning natural gas into motion. This is primarily due to less energy lost to heat waste.

So by that logic, I figure an EV is about 2.14x more efficient than a gasoline internal combustion-powered car. 

In 2018, Albertans used 6.3 billion litres of gasoline in motor vehicles. One litre of gasoline is about the same amount of energy as 8.9 kilowatt-hours (kWh). So if ALL of the energy used to move cars came from electricity, we would need 26.3 billion kWh of electric energy. 

That sounds like a lot. And it is a lot, but it is actually 66% of the total electric energy we generated in Alberta in 2018.

So, we have a bit of a challenge ahead of us if we want to electrify all vehicles. As I like to say, there are lots of challenges but also lots of opportunities! Regardless of what the eventual EV market penetration is, there will be lots of work for electricians, electrical engineers, linemen, and all of the other trades and professions that service the electrical and construction industries. 

Alberta’s Productive Potential

So what if we want to take this one step further and feed all of these EVs from solar? What would that take in terms of land?

One solar panel mounted on the ground in Alberta will generate 740 kWh in a year. So we would need about 35.5 million solar panels to generate all of this electricity. That would require about four thousand acres of solar panels

That sounds like more than it is. Alberta is blessed with 163 million acres of land, and much of it suitable to host solar. That means we would need MUCH less than 1% of Alberta’s available land to host solar panels—only 0.0024%

Where Solar Energy Comes In

Now for the final piece. We want that solar energy to be piped straight into EV batteries so we can avoid having to store it elsewhere first. That’s where we at Inferno Solar come in. We provide solar and charging systems for commercial buildings. This is ideal because the power can be generated on site where it is needed. Employee cars and fleet vehicles can take this energy straight from their roof into the vehicle batteries. In my opinion, this is the ideal scenario.

Contact us to learn more.

-Curtis Craig, P.Eng, Founder and President