Ideally, the electric vehicle revolution should usher in an era of cheap, clean, motoring, with minimal compromises compared to a gas-powered car. Well, I’m sorry y’all, but I think those promises are only for white-collar homeowners. After tallying up the costs of running a few EVs around Ohio I should let you know something important here: I paid more to drive electric cars than I would have to use any of my subcompact gas-powered cars.
Don’t Count on Public EV Charging To Be That Cheap
I’m a renter, beholden to whatever services my landlord offers or allows me to install. That’s a big part of what we’re testing in the EV Explorer series — what electric car life is like in the Midwest, without dedicated home charging. So as outlined at the outset of the series, I was reliant entirely on public charging options.
I spent over a month driving five different electric cars: a Hyundai Kona EV, a Volkswagen (VW) ID.4, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Polestar 2, and a Tesla Model 3. Here’s how the numbers break out per model.
In total, including supercharging the Tesla and occasional free charges, I spent $285.93 on DC fast charging and level 2 slow charging. Add in any parking fees associated with EV charging, the cost rises to $315.93. In all, I used about 1,359 kWh over the course of about 2,800 miles. That averages to about 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, and about eleven cents per mile to run, not counting wear and tear.
When aggregated out, the numbers can be misleading, relying on free charging and parking to bring down a vehicle’s average running costs.
I drove the Hyundai Kona Electric 460 miles, using 139.5 kWh to replenish the car’s 64 kWh battery pack. Including charging losses, the Kona EV averaged 3.29 miles per kWh. I recharged the Kona three times, two of which were free. In all, I spent $17.29, meaning the Kona electric averaged not quite $0.04 per mile.
The Polestar 2 was driven a bit farther and for a longer time, and it was less efficient. Over the course of about 550 miles, the Polestar used 252.6 kWh, including charging losses. This works out to a 2.17 mile per kWh average. The Polestar was charged five times, three of which were free, but one did require payment for parking to access the free charger. Including parking, the Polestar cost me $35.68 to recharge, averaging out to $0.06 per mile.
The Volkswagen ID.4 was driven the farthest of the five vehicles, consuming 389.4 kWh over 680 miles. It went on a long road trip to Pittsburgh, which meant driving fast on freeways, through the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and in the cold. These are all factors that are less than ideal for an electric car that already isn’t known for being the most efficient model on the marketplace. Including charging losses, the ID.4 averaged about 1.75 miles per kWh. In the whopping 11 charging events for the ID.4, only seven of them were free, and for one of the charges I had to pay for overnight parking to access the free charger. Two charging events were done at the lighting-fast Electrify America chargers, but those were very expensive. In all, I paid $80.66 to recharge or access charging facilities in the Volkswagen ID.4. This works out to be nearly 12 cents per mile.
The Mustang Mach-E was driven a moderate distance, but the last 20 percent of its battery charges extremely slowly, which meant it had elevated recharge costs for paid chargers because they were billed based upon time, not consumption. I drove the Mustang on a somewhat long trip, all freeway driving, in the cold, and I needed every bit of its 88 kWh battery; 80 percent wasn’t enough. I also drove the Mustang to Cleveland, where complimentary free charging wasn’t easy to find. Over 620 miles, the Mach-E used 240.68 kWh, working out to a 2.57-mile-per-kWh efficiency. Out of the eight recharging events, only four were free. In all, I paid $106.61 to recharge the Mustang Mach-E, averaging out to an eye-watering $0.17 per mile.
Lastly, the Tesla Model 3 was exclusively charged via supercharging. It is not free for this particular Model 3 owner, and I experienced a fair amount of charging losses which brought down the Model 3’s observed efficiency. The Model 3 also had the worst overnight unplugged battery drain, too. It used 213 kWh over the week I drove it to replenish its fairly small 50 kWh battery. Over 520 miles, it averaged out to 2.44 miles per kWh, including charging losses. Over six charging events, I paid $75.29, including parking, averaging out to $0.14 per mile.
How Does that Compare to a Gas-powered Car?
Given my driving style, which is generally mild, my Fiat 500 Abarth will average about 31.5 miles per gallon in mixed driving. I can get about 325 miles per tank before I need to refuel. I’m spoiled by comparatively cheap gas prices here in Ohio, so refueling the Abarth with premium fuel would cost about $41 at about $3.90 per gallon. Not counting insurance, or maintenance, my Abarth costs about $0.12 per mile to fill with gas. Keep in mind these numbers are for a sporty, turbocharged hot hatch. A cheap hybrid or conventional gas-powered car designed for comfort and economy could match or significantly exceed my Fiat’s numbers.
Admittedly, I was disappointed that the promise of cheap, green motoring didn’t materialize for me. Crunching the raw numbers revealed that publically recharging an EV didn’t seem to be much cheaper than gassing up any standard car. Plus, I was forced into the added inconvenience of comparatively long recharging times and the annoyance of sometimes being forced to pay for parking to access charging stations. Heck, public charging had the potential to be more expensive than refueling; my numbers were reliant on free public charging options lowering the average recharging cost. How sustainable is this, really? I don’t anticipate free, courtesy DC fast charging, or Level 2 charging to remain widespread as EV adoption grows.
I had a lot of questions, so I turned to Drive Electric Ohio and the Citizens Board of Utilities, an Ohio-based nonprofit. Rather than focusing on making DC fast charging cheaper, the director of Drive Electric Ohio Brenden Kelley insisted we need to put in critical support for at-home, overnight charging.
“Public fast charging as currently conceived is unlikely to become more cost-competitive due to the unpredictability of the power draw and the magnitude of the draw when it happens,” Kelley said in an email. “Technology solutions that combine fast charging and storage (so the unit can draw power off the grid at a slower rate and return power to the grid at high-demand times, which may be a revenue stream to lower costs for actual charging) could be a way to make public charging more cost-competitive.”
My research showed me that DC fast chargers can induce incredible demand; 20 cars using DC fast charging at once could equal the output of 1,500 homes. That’s more than the number of houses in my little suburban Ohio hamlet.
Kelley pointed me to the Citizens Utility Board of Ohio, or CUB for short. This nonprofit is said to advocate for residential and small-business utility customers by searching for better deals and fighting for more utility rights for Ohioans. It just released its policy guide, a sort of roadmap to getting Ohio on a fully encompassing EV charging infrastructure bandwagon.
CUB Ohio seconded Kelley, admitting that DC fast charging likely won’t ever be cost-competitive. Between the cost of installation, which sometimes crests more than $100,000 for one singular charger, it likely will remain a “sometimes” thing, a solution for drivers in a time bind, or on a long trip. To CUB and Drive Electric Ohio, the real solution will lie in more level 2, or even level 1 charging solutions. Think slow chargers, but everywhere.
“We think of an electric battery like a gas tank – we gotta go fill it up!” said a CUB Ohio representative. “Really, what we need to think about instead is a model where it’s more like, ‘top er’ off,’ where you can get a slow charge, but wherever you go, you can get a little bit of electricity.”
Ford’s alluded to this in its now famous (or infamous) tweet thread explaining its EV education strategy through hackneyed memes.
Charging at Home Would Have Been Cheap
I averaged just shy of 22 cents per kWh during the EV test. By comparison, on average, the City of Columbus’s electricity rate tends to hover around $0.05 per kWh. If I had charged at home, I would have only spent about $65.65, averaging out to a tiny $0.02 per mile. Homeowners who can live with the compromises of time and range would find themselves paying a fraction of what it costs to maintain and run a traditional gas-powered car, so long as they never need to pay for public DC fast charging, or the parking fees associated with public charging.
That’s easier said than done. If you’re a homeowner or live in a higher-end luxury apartment space, finding or creating accommodations to home-charge an electric vehicle is a lot easier compared to a middle- or working-class renter. Heck, even homeowners without off-street parking could find themselves in this conundrum.
To Drive Electric Ohio, CUB Ohio, and many other EV advocates, the solution lies in rewriting the laws. “EV charging yields the greatest benefits to the public when it can happen relatively slowly and during hours when the electric grid is being used least,” Kelley said through email. “Rather than making public charging options more cost-competitive, the first goal should be to make home charging more available with a particular focus on multi-family dwellings (MFDs) and single-family residences without dedicated, private parking.”
Meaning, we’ve got to move all the legislative roadblocks out of the way to ensure EV owners everywhere have access to chargers. That’s a tall order, but not one that’s undoable. It could take the form of changing parking restrictions and doing some city planning to install streetside chargers. It involves education, explaining to developers why new (and existing) developments need EV charging. It’ll take a ton of money too, in the form of government subsidies and other cash injections to get the dollars in the right hands to build out more infrastructure. The UK did it.
The roadblocks are outlined in CUB Ohio’s booklet, The ABC’s Guide To EV’s Policy Guide To Electrify Ohio. The group is candid that the cost of DC Fast Charging is uncompetitive against slow home charging, but it is commonly the sole option for those who do not have access or time to level 2 charge at home. CUB Ohio proposes subsidies to induce better DC fast charging utilization, offsetting running costs, allowing for cheaper recharging.
I remain skeptical that consumers will truly latch onto the mentality of only using what you need. Even in China, whose EV market dwarfs the United States, DC fast charging desire and use has outpaced slow charging options. Low maintenance and low cost on paper could diverge away from the reality of how EV owners actually will end up using their vehicles.
The battle for a functional, cost-effective charging infrastructure is a complicated battle with lots of variables, and we’re still at the beginning of this cultural and societal shift.
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