Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that EV drivers save almost $800 a year, depending on where, when, and how they charge.
Buying an electric vehicle has long been pitched as being about saving something—the planet, your lungs, your children’s future, etc. But a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists emphasizes how EVs can drive consumer savings. They aren’t just more environmentally friendly than cars with internal combustion engines: They cost a lot less to drive.
“Most people know how much gas costs—if you drive a car, you drive by gas stations, you see the costs—but a lot of people don’t think about how electricity is priced,” said David Reichmuth, the author of the report. Armed with data on the price of refueling EVs in the 50 largest U.S. cities, he found that EV users would save a median of almost $800 per year over a gas-powered car, depending on where, when, and how they charge their cars.
The savings aren’t evenly dispersed throughout the United States. In Houston, Texas, annual savings using the standard electric rate is $443; in Denver, $772; and in New York, $1,061. This is due to geographical variations in fuel prices (gas is much cheaper in Houston than in New York, thanks to Texas’ low gas taxes and close proximity to oil infrastructure) and electricity costs. Nationwide, however, electricity costs are much less volatile than gas prices: In 15 years, electricity has been priced between the equivalent of $.88 to $1.17 per gallon over 15 years, while gasoline has varied from $2.00 to $4.50 per gallon in the same time period.
Cities were compared based on the standard rate electricity providers bill for power, but customers who recharge in home garages are able to decide between a variety of rate plans from their electricity companies. To maximize savings, it matters which they choose.
Power company default settings are often flat-rate or tiered flat-rate plans, which keep the price of charging constant no matter the time of day. Other companies offer critical peak pricing (or CPP) plans, which charge surge prices on high-demand occasions. For EV owners, time-of-use (or TOU) plans that charge less for off-peak times like late nights are most cost effective, according to the report, since owners can plug in vehicles overnight, when the juice is going cheap. Off-peak TOU costs range from a low of $.25 per gallon in Minneapolis to $1.78 per gallon in parts of Los Angeles.
It’s particularly important to be using the “right rate” in Californian cities, said Reichmuth. In San Francisco, for example, users on the TOU rate save almost $1,000 per year on fuel. For those using the standard rate of a given electricity provider, however, which is typically flat-rate or tiered flat-rate, the electricity costs exactly the same as gas: $3.34 per gallon.
For individuals, it’s easy to switch your billing plan. “Changing to time-of-use rates for a lot of people is just a matter of calling up the electric company, or going to the website of your provider,” said Reichmuth. Some states are drafting policy to mandate that switch. In 2015, California announced all public utility companies would change their default rates to TOU by 2019.
Right now, 80 percent of EV charging happens in-house. But public charging stations on highways and in parking garages are proliferating, especially in EV-friendly California cities, and using them changes the cost equation. Public chargers come in two flavors, slower 240-volt Level 2 chargers and quicker, more expensive DC Fast ones. Level 2 chargers are more ubiquitous, especially in states with high EV sales, while DC Fast Chargers are concentrated on the coasts and in urban areas.
Chargers can vary widely in pricing, depending on location and type. Some are free, some are priced based on length of use or energy used, and some charge a flat rate. Heavy users might invest in subscriptions in charging networks, that let you fill up at lower rates. Until last year, all cars manufactured by Tesla could top up their batteries for free at the company’s superchargers. The company halted the complementary service for cars manufactured after January 1, 2017, however—meaning that as their new Model 3s roll out this year, they won’t be eligible at all.
A case study of San Francisco showed that there, using the often necessary combination of home and public charging results in slightly lower cost savings. “If 20 percent of EV charging happens at Level 2 public chargers,” and the other 80 at home, “average fuel costs could increase from $0.78 per gallon equivalent to $1.05 per gallon,” reads the report. Time is money: Those costs go up further if using DC Fast chargers. Both methods are still cheaper than San Francisco’s average gasoline price in September 2017, however, which was $3.30 per gallon.
What about maintenance costs? EVs win again. Battery-powered cars don’t need regular oil changes, fresh fuel filters, new spark plugs, or other typical replacement items. Electric motors are comparatively maintenance-free, compared to internal combustion engines. Braking pads last longer in EVs, too, because they’re equipped with regenerative braking systems that lessen friction.
On the other hand, EV drivers can burn through tires faster, since the rubber gets worked harder under the weight of battery packs. The UCS report doesn’t cover the most pricey potential repair item in EVs—their complex and costly battery packs, which lose capacity over time and use, especially in harsh conditions. Manufacturer warranties vary, but 100,000-mile coverage is the norm. “EV are still fairly new, but there is no evidence that battery replacement will be needed for most vehicles,” Reichmuth said in an email. “So we didn’t consider it (nor any issues that could crop up with a gasoline engine).”
Taking only scheduled maintenance into account, the report projects that an electric Chevy Bolt owner will spend over $1,500 less for the first 150,000 miles than for its gas-powered sibling, the Chevy Sonic.
Of course, the higher-than-average purchase price of EVs has long been one of the main consumer turn-offs. But that gap is closing, and the cars themselves are getting cheaper—the base-level Bolt and Tesla Model 3 sell for around $27,000 after figuring in the (imperiled) federal tax credit. Both are about $35,000 before incentives. There are even cheaper models out there, pre-incentive: the $30,000 Nissan Leaf; the $27,000 Toyota Prius Prime Plus; and the $25,000 Chevy Spark.
And while building enough charging infrastructure to support a future fleet of hundreds of millions of electric vehicles will be expensive, installing home garage chargers is relatively painless—if you have a garage. (According to the 2013 Census, only 60 million Americans do). “If you have a plug-in hybrid or go mostly short distances with a battery electric you might just be able to use a standard 110 outlet,” said Reichmuth. “The cord for charging with that outlet is included with pretty much every EV.” Those who plan to use an EV as their primary vehicle for longer trips will want to upgrade to a charging station, which vary between $200 and $1,000 for a unit, depending on how high-tech.
Reichmuth himself drives a Bolt, which he calls “zippy around town” and “probably the quickest accelerating car” he’s ever owned. “Even if you ignore the cost and emissions savings”—which recent evidence proves you shouldn’t—“it’s still a great car from a driving perspective.”