Straight Talk Articles

Charging Ahead:  Why More Americans are Driving Electric Vehicles
August, 2017

Dear Pat:

My son and his wife just bought an electric vehicle. I was surprised to learn that the cost of their new electric vehicle was comparable to a gasoline-powered car.  I need to replace my car in a few years and am interested in learning more about electric vehicles.  What are the pros and cons of going electric?  -Jeff


Dear Jeff:  

Your son is not alone. Electric vehicle (EV) sales have been growing.  There are some good reasons that EVs are becoming more popular, but there are also a few potential drawbacks to EVs. 


Let’s start with the basics:  what is an EV?  EVs are vehicles that plug into the electric grid for some or all of their power.  There are two primary EV types. All-electric EVs—such as the Nissan LEAF—are powered entirely with electricity.   Plug-in hybrid EVs—such as the Chevrolet Volt—are dual-fuel cars; both the electric motor and the internal combustion engine can propel the car.


A key benefit of EVs is that a driver’s trips to the gas station are either vastly reduced or eliminated altogether. However, in lieu of gas refueling, EVs need to be recharged. At the lowest charging level, called Level 1, an hour of charging typically provides 2-5 miles of range per hour. Because the average light duty car is parked for 12 hours per day at a residence, many EV drivers can use Level 1 charging for most of their charging needs.  The fastest charging level, called DC Fast-Charging, can provide 60-80 miles of range in a 20 minute period. 


One benefit of charging with electricity is that it is nearly always cheaper than fueling with gasoline.  An electric gallon—or “eGallon”— represents the cost of driving an EV the same distance a gasoline-powered vehicle could travel on one gallon of gasoline. On average, an eGallon is about one-third the cost of a gallon of gasoline.  Another benefit of charging with electricity is that, throughout much of the country, it is a cleaner fuel source than gasoline.   Although the exact environmental benefits of driving an EV will vary based on what fuel is used to make the electricity you use, one recent study found that two-thirds of Americans live where driving an EV is cleaner than driving a 50 MPG gas-powered car. 

Another key reason for the rise in EV ownership is because of recent reductions in the upfront cost of the cars.  The batteries used in EVs are the most expensive component, but thanks to improving production methods, the cost of the batteries has dropped by over 35 percent since 2010, and costs are expected to keep dropping.  Because of these cost reductions and technology improvements, EVs are hitting some major performance and affordability milestones.  For example, in late 2016, General Motors released the Chevrolet Bolt—an all-electric EV with an estimated range of 238 miles per charge, costing about $30,000. 


Although even longer range and more affordable EVs are expected to hit the market soon, one of the key drawbacks of EVs is that most models currently have a range of less than 100 miles per charge. Although more and more public charging stations are available across the United States, “range anxiety” is still a concern for many potential buyers.  Fortunately, if you are considering an EV, keep in mind that the average American’s daily driving patterns are well-suited for EV use. More than half of all U.S. vehicle trips are between one and ten miles and even in rural areas the average daily drive distances for typical errands and commutes are well within the range of most currently available EVs.


EVs are also well-suited for many commercial applications.  For example, EVs are now being used as part of ridesharing services like Uber, where average trip distances are between just 5 and 7 miles. Companies like Frito-Lay and FedEx are also introducing EVs into their delivery fleets and a growing number of municipalities are even buying electric buses.


If you are interested in learning more about EVs, test driving an EV is a great first step.  Many curious drivers are impressed by the performance of EVs, especially the instant torque provided by the electric motor.  Your co-op can also be a great resource.  More and more co-ops own EVs as part of their fleets and may offer “ride and drive” events.  Dozens of co-ops also offer reduced electricity rates for “off peak” EV charging, which can help you save even more money on fueling.  


This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Christine Grant of Collaborative Efficiency. 

In More and more co-ops own EVs as part of their fleets. Photo credit: Jeff Springer for Dairyland Power Cooperative.