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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.