Electric car charging
Electric car charging

Electric Vehicles: Not a Panacea for the Gas Crunch

Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg recently argued that electric vehicles were an affordable solution to the now record gas prices. But he didn’t specifically say how.  It turns out that if one considers the real costs and practicalities of owning and operating an electric vehicle, his statement is false. 

While the prices of electric vehicles are indeed coming down, the average electric vehicle still costs more than $50,000, which is vastly more than most Americans can afford. And sadly, it is those who can least afford electric vehicles that are being hurt the most by the massive inflation brought about in large part by the Biden administration’s over year-long war on fossil fuel production — which are now going to be exacerbated by sanctions on Russian oil due to the war with Ukraine. 

Just last week, former Michigan governor and current Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reiterated that the country is currently in an energy transition off oil and gas, seeming oblivious to the financial pain the Biden administration is causing families across America. 

Do the benefits of electric vehicles offset this pain? Let’s look at the numbers. In 2021, 14.9 million light vehicles were sold in America, of which about 3% were electric vehicles. The average price of a new gas-powered light vehicle in 2020 was $38,960.  So the purchaser of an electric vehicle would need to be able to make up the difference in fuel costs to justify an electric vehicle purchase. It costs less to fuel an electric vehicle, but since the costs vary wildly based on where and when you charge, it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison.    

But let’s consider some real-world initial operating costs and practical issues.  Charging at home, late at night, is the least costly option.  But charging on standard household current (called Level 1 charging) can take up to three days depending on battery capacity. Installing a 240-volt circuit allows for charging overnight (called Level 2 charging), but purchasing the charger and having it installed can cost as much as $1500

Then there are the annual costs. A 2020 Tesla Model 3 needs about 24 kWh to drive 100 miles. In Southern California, electric vehicle owners qualify for a “Time-of-Use” (TOU) rate plan, which during the winter months is 21 cents/kWh off-peak (between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.). Given the average miles driven per year (14,300 miles per the Federal Highway Administration), the driver would need 3,432 kWh of charge per year, which at 21 cents/kWh costs $720.72. This is roughly one-half the annual cost to fuel an average gasoline-powered vehicle, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $1,568 in 2020. 

Given that an average electric vehicle costs about $11,000 more than a gasoline powered vehicle, it would take 14 years on average to break even in terms of fuel costs, not factoring in the cost of installing a 240-volt charger. In short, while the numbers are increasing year over year, particularly as gas prices increase, the lower costs to fuel an electric vehicle over the life of a vehicle is nowhere near making up for the increased expense of purchasing an electric vehicle. 

Furthermore, if it’s impractical for a homeowner to charge at home, or if the electric vehicle owner lives in an apartment, then the owner will have no choice but to leverage fast DC charging pay stations, which are more costly.  Some automobile manufacturers provide free fast DC charging, covering a set dollar amount or a period of time (some up to three years). After that, the owner pays. 

As an example, in California, Electrify America fast DC charging stations charge 43 cents/kWh without a membership plan, but for a small monthly fee will only charge 31 cents/kWh on their Pass+ monthly plan. Clearly, the membership plan makes more sense, but it is still 50% more than charging at home late at night. And again, a fast charger would most likely be the only practical option for an apartment dweller. All these factors make the electric vehicle even less attractive in terms of the cost. 

So far, I have only discussed the costs of owning an electric vehicle. What I have not covered, as the owner of an Audi e-tron electric vehicle (who also happens to have solar that helps lower my electricity costs), are the downsides of owning an electric vehicle. I personally love mine. But they are simply not for everyone, and you should not be gaslighted into believing you need to own one.  In short, electric vehicles are highly inconvenient, unless you live in a house and charge at night with a Level 2 charger. They are even more of an inconvenience on longer trips since you will have to plan around battery capacity. 

First, anyone who purchases an electric vehicle should know that current batteries degrade over time — they generally have a useful life of eight to ten years at best. And degradation can be greatly accelerated if an electric vehicle owner regularly charges to 100% with fast DC chargers. That is why virtually all manufacturers strongly suggest that on a regular basis to not charge an electric vehicle above 80%, and to not allow the battery to discharge to below 20%. And by no means should an owner ever allow the battery to discharge close to 0%. 

It’s okay to charge to 100% for the occasional long trip, but it is your responsibility to protect the life of your battery, particularly if you are purchasing the car and not leasing. Not doing so can be very costly for you at trade-in time if your battery only has 70% of its original capacity after four to five years of use. 

Second, most electric vehicles have a lower range relative to gasoline-powered vehicles. Tesla is among the highest, making it the most practical based on the requirement for normal operation within the 20-80% state of charge (SoC). But if you own an electric vehicle with the typical range of between 240 to 300 miles, then the SoC for the lower range would yield about 144 drivable miles, while on the higher range, a full SoC would yield about 180 miles. If you lack the convenience of Level 2 charging at home, this will mean charging twice a week at fast DC chargers in both cases, presuming an average mileage of 275 miles per week (14,300 miles divided by 52 weeks). 

Third, it typically takes about 30-40 minutes to charge a car from 20% to 80% at a fast DC charger, depending on the capacity, which is typically in the range of 150 kW to 350 kW (charger capacity can be much lower at retail locations, making them less suitable for receiving a full charge). One also must locate an available fast DC charger – usually by searching the web or with a smartphone app. 

Fourth, as more and more people drive electric vehicles, invariably there will be charging bottlenecks. Since it takes so long to charge, owners will typically leave their car to get a coffee or do some quick shopping while they’re charging.  So you must always be prepared to wait even after the charger you are waiting for has completed charging. 

Fifth, if you’re not a good planner, don’t bother with an electric vehicle. You will often find yourself in a situation where you don’t have enough range to safely drive your vehicle to your destination. In that case, you will have to find a fast DC charger and wait, a situation I have found myself in numerous times. Again, do not drive your car down anything close to 0%, under any circumstances. 

Finally, don’t buy into the myth that electric vehicles are “zero-emission.” Electric vehicles are built using fossil fuels, and manufacturing batteries is an especially dirty business.  Only 20% of the electric power source is from renewable energy sources (but again, remember it takes fossil fuels to construct renewable sources of energy).  The remaining 80% of the power is generated by natural gas, coal, or nuclear.  Natural gas and nuclear are actually among the cleanest sources of energy, which you will never hear from the Biden administration. 

In conclusion, it is not my intent to discourage anyone from purchasing an electric vehicle. As stated above, I have one and I love it. It works great for my low vehicle mileage lifestyle.  Even though I typically charge at the fast DC charger while out to lunch a couple of times a week, I can charge from home any time I need to. I take good care of my battery as the manufacturer recommends. 

If you decide to purchase an electric vehicle, take the time to weigh the pros and cons to see if it fits with your own personal lifestyle. Don’t let stubborn, quixotic, utopian-minded politicians gaslight you into purchasing one. If you have a real concern for the climate, as I do, then you should feel good about purchasing either a hybrid or an electric vehicle and you should also be an advocate of clean natural gas and nuclear power along with renewable energy sources.