Here’s everything you need to know before rolling up to an EV charger.
Here’s something we are bound to miss about our gas-guzzlers: Filling up is simple math. Most drivers understand how much a tank will cost, and the volatility over time is almost entirely a function of local fuel prices. Though charging EVs is generally much cheaper, figuring out how much it costs is more complicated for two big reasons. Electric Car Charger Plug
First, a lot goes into both the rate at which you’re billed and how much charge you need. That includes what kind of car you drive, where you live, whether you use home or public chargers, what time of day you charge, and even the weather. That’s very different from pulling up to a gas station in your Corolla to a number on a price sign.
Second, and more importantly, this is a whole new world. You may not know the difference between energy and power, level 2 and 3 chargers, or time-of-use (ToU) and flat rate. And there’s no shame in that because if you’re like most people, you’ve never needed to know much about how electricity works, how it is priced, and why.
That’s about to change. An underappreciated aspect of our movement toward mass adoption of EVs is the fundamental shift we can expect in how we understand electricity. And I don’t mean just as a society—I mean as individuals going about our day-to-day business.
For those of us who don’t yet own EVs, our relationship with electricity is inherently passive. We may not think of it that way because we’re always switching something on or plugging something in, but our major forms of electricity consumption (HVAC, light, appliances, etc.) are just the overhead of modern living. Except at the extremes or on the margins—do we really need the A/C turned up that high?—we can only control our use so much and, by extension, how much we pay for that usage. By contrast, EVs give us agency in when, where, and even how quickly we consume large amounts of electricity. Hence, the buzz about possibilities that seemed like science fiction not so long ago. For example, in the near future, our vehicles might allow us to arbitrage electricity—buying and storing cheap energy at night and delivering it back to the grid during peak hours via vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. This means our cars could potentially generate negative electricity bills, as has proven possible with stationary storage.
So that’s the dream: EVs that don’t just cost less to operate than gas cars but actually lower the sum cost of our electricity use. But we’re definitely not there yet, and in the meantime, it’s surprisingly hard to get straight facts on how much we can expect to pay to charge and how to maximize the promised cost savings of going green. Think of the below as a bite-size but full-service primer on charging costs. In a nutshell, your charging costs will hinge on what you know, what you drive, and where and when you charge. That means you’ll want to learn the terms, choose your vehicle wisely (or at least deliberately), and understand the key decision points in the very different realms of home and public charging.
If you want to understand EV charging costs, you’ll want to become familiar with these terms. What looks like a set of boring units is actually the framework for understanding the relationship between power, energy, time, and distance—the building blocks for estimating your energy needs.
The most important factor in how much you will spend fueling your EV, regardless of where you live or what type of charging station you visit, is how efficient your vehicle is. The range of choice is already huge. And with every passing month, the number of EV options only grows, as does your pick of vehicle sizes, battery capacities, and vehicle efficiencies. On the more efficient end of the spectrum, a Tesla Model 3 could have a battery as small as 60.9 kWh and consume around 224 Wh/mi, while the monstrous 9640-lb GMC Hummer EV has a 212.7-kWh battery and consumes about 650 Wh/mi.
Just as with internal-combustion-engine (ICE) vehicles, if you drive a large, heavy truck, you should expect to spend at least 50 percent more per mile than you would pay for a smaller, more efficient vehicle. Because electricity is cheaper if you charge at home, footing the extra $98 or so a month (based on average national prices in 2022) on your home electrical bill to drive and charge that Hummer EV for 1000 miles may not feel quite as painful as shelling out roughly $296 per month to do the same (per average national fuel costs in 2022) in an ICE equivalent like the Cadillac Escalade. But you will certainly feel the pain at public fast-charging stations, which tend to be much closer to gas prices, mile for mile.
For most consumers, the vast majority of charging happens at home, so the most important thing will be understanding how to read your electricity bill. Unfortunately, not every utility company bills the same way, so you’ll need to take a close look to project your costs. In some locations, you may have the option of choosing between different rates and determining the best fit for you based on how and when your home and car consume energy.
The most common scenario is a straightforward utility that bills at a flat rate per kilowatt-hour, regardless of the time of day or how much power is used. This makes calculating how much running your car will cost pretty easy. Let’s say you drive 1000 miles per month in a Tesla Model 3 that consumes 250 watt-hours per mile, and you pay the flat $0.15 per kilowatt-hour that I paid in New York City last month.
How much energy your EV would need: 1000 miles * 250 Wh/mi = 250,000 Wh = 250 kWh How much that energy would cost: 250 kWh * $0.15/kWh = $37.50 per month
For comparison’s sake, a less-efficient Hummer EV would cost roughly $97 in electricity to drive the same 1000 miles. A gas Lexus ES 350 that gets a combined 26 miles per gallon would cost $150 to fuel at the current NYC average of $3.90/gallon for regular. And, of course, these costs scale up and down with the local electricity rate where you live. In May 2023, North Dakotans paid as little as $0.12/kWh, while Hawaiians, who, as island dwellers, have the highest gas prices in the country, paid almost four times that at $0.42/kWh.
But depending on where you live, you may have choices beyond flat-rate billing. This is where things get interesting because you may have ways to reduce your EV charging costs significantly.
About half of U.S. utilities try to spread electrical demand throughout the day by offering time-of-use pricing to encourage consumers to use discretionary electrical items during hours when not using less elastic loads, like air conditioning. In some cases, you may actually get to choose between different versions of ToU. Taking advantage of these programs can dramatically reduce the cost of charging your EV.
That’s reflected in the rate options from the California electric utility company PG&E.
These rates show that, as a general rule, if you have ToU pricing, you’ll get the best rate charging your car overnight. For PG&E customers on the simpler “D” rate, off-peak is $0.38/kWh; peak is $0.42/kWh in winter and $0.51/kWh in summer. If you are careful about when you charge, our Model 3 example above would drop from $127.50/mo for summer on-peak charging to $95/mo for off-peak. Those with particularly efficient homes and cars may opt for the “C” rate on the left, which lowers their per-kWh rate, provided they can stay below a baseline allowance of total usage per month (typically defined as less than the average for similar homes in their region). This comes with a risk, as energy used above that allowance is penalized with a higher rate.
And no need to worry about the hassle of remembering to plug in your car at 11:00 p.m. to take advantage of this lower pricing. Modern EVs typically have software settings that let you program the time you want charging to start when you are plugged in at home.
Inevitably, EV ownership means that total electrical usage will go up, so it may be difficult for customers to take advantage of the allowance-limited rates. Electrical utilities generally want to encourage EV adoption, so many, like PG&E, have introduced EV-specific rates. These rates generally trade a higher peak rate for a much lower off-peak rate, recognizing that EV charging can be as much as half of your electrical bill but can be done easily during off-peak hours. Under this scheme, our 1000-mile Model 3 example charged off-peak would cost just $67.50 per month—quite a savings.
Taking advantage of some EV-specific rates may require a dedicated meter to measure the electricity used to charge your vehicle. This enables your electric company to bill your home at a more traditional rate while your vehicle takes advantage of lower off-peak rates (and, on the flip side, even higher on-peak rates). This can be helpful if you have a large home with high peak-hour electrical use that wouldn’t be offset by overnight EV charging.
But, installing a second meter can cost upwards of $4000, which can be a prohibitive upfront investment with a years-long payback period. States and startups are figuring out ways to address this incentive problem, and more options are coming. Last fall, California became the first state to roll out a set of equipment communications protocols to allow EV owners to submeter cheaply, allowing them to take advantage of dedicated EV rates with a much lower upfront cost.
There are also EV-specific, low-income programs that can significantly lower standard EV rates. The special rates are typically enrolled in by demonstrating low income or participating in other low-income programs like SNAP.
There is a huge range in pricing on public chargers, from free to extortionate, so it’s important to understand the options and plan accordingly.
The two types of public chargers are Level 2 (L2) and Level 3 (L3) DC fast-chargers. The main difference between these, obviously, is how quickly they will charge your car. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but there is not always a clear correlation between how fast you charge and how much you pay for that energy, as both types are associated with a wide range of billing methods and prices. You’ll notice a wild west feel to the cost landscape as states, municipalities, and startups experiment with different public charger offerings.
Most public chargers are L2 chargers, but you’ll notice a lot of different business models being tested and, therefore, a lot of different pricing structures.
Some L2 chargers are free as an attractive amenity for customers expected to drop money on other goods or services while they charge or are subsidized by ads displayed on the chargers. For a one-to-four-hour charge, there are quite a few free public L2 chargers out there. They are often associated with a business, workplace, or government buildings. Tesla has installed Destination Chargers that are free for guests at many hotels and resorts to use, allowing drivers to charge overnight on long trips. Many car dealerships are happy to trade a free charge for the opportunity to try to sell you a new car while you wait. Shopping centers would love for you to walk around shopping while you wait for your car to charge. A quick look at the charging-finder site PlugShare while using the “free” filter setting shows you all the options for free energy around you. The catch is that these free chargers do tend to be on the slower end of the spectrum, even for L2 chargers.
Most chargers are not free, however, and the customer is billed for the energy used through a direct-payment interface or mobile app. Here, too, prices range because they are typically set by the owner of the property hosting the charger(s) rather than a nationwide charging network operating them. ChargePoint, the largest L2 charger provider, exclusively sells its charging stations to businesses that control the pricing independently, so two ChargePoint L2 chargers on the same street may have wildly different pricing. It is important to check each station you visit.
Another complicating factor is that some stations bill per hour and some per kWh of energy, which means that to compare the prices, you have to make the conversion using the speed of the charger that bills per hour. All you have to do is divide the billing rate by the charging speed. So the math for a ChargePoint station that offers a charging speed of 6.6 kW and bills at $3/hr is as follows:
$3 per hr / 6.6kW = $0.45 per kWh
A recent development in many cities, NYC included, is the city’s widespread deployment of curbside EV chargers. The goal is to encourage EV adoption among those who park on the street and do not have access to traditional home charging. NYC’s partnership with Flo is an example of one of these programs. The arrangements often combine parking and charging into one fee. In an area of Brooklyn where metered curbside parking is typically $1.50/hr, parking plus charging (at 6kW) costs $2.50/hr and $1.00/hr off-peak during the hours when parking is free. This means that the same Model 3 1000-mile month would cost from $42 on the low end to $104 on the high end, including parking.
DC fast-charging gets most of the headlines because it is the closest analogue to the gas stations we know and (kind of) love. It is the fastest way to charge your car, requiring minutes rather than hours. But these stations cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, so getting to gas-station ubiquity will take a while—plus, regular use may degrade your battery much faster than L2 chargers.
Similar to L2 chargers, public fast-charging networks tend to have different pricing structures. The high infrastructure cost makes free fast-charging largely a thing of the past unless in an ad-supported model, but between monthly memberships, billing-per-minute, and ToU rates, many models are being tested. In the NYC metro area at the time of writing, you might see the following approximate pricing for the major players:
BP Pulse: $0.49/kWh + $3/hr or $0.35/kWh Electrify America: $0.48/kWh or $0.36/kWh + $4 monthly membership EVgo: $0.23–$0.42/kWh or $0.99/session + $0.43/kWh overnight, $0.56/kWh off-peak, $0.69/kWh on-peak EvolveNY: $0.35/kWh Revel: $0.49/kWh Tesla: $0.28–$0.36/kWh
As you can see, you might find wildly different rates depending on where and when you go to charge. Complicating this is that all of these Level 3 DCFC chargers are not created equal, with some as slow as 25kW and others as fast as 350kW. This doesn’t necessarily affect pricing until you consider that some chargers bill by both the kWh and the hour, so you may pay more for a slower charge. That said, charging our Model 3 example solely at DCFC stations would cost around $70 monthly at Tesla Superchargers and as much as $173 if charging at EVgo during on-peak hours.
The reality is that, as of right now, few people rely exclusively on public DCFC chargers. Most people do the majority of their charging at home, and those who do not tend to find L2 chargers elsewhere—either at work, a monthly parking garage, or increasingly at the curbside. This means that for many, the true average cost of charging an EV is closer to the $0.15/kWh that homeowners pay (per 2022 national-average pricing) than it is to the $0.50/kWh common at public fast-chargers.
It’s not a bad bottom line: For any given type and size of car, it is far cheaper to charge an EV than fuel an ICE vehicle. Plus, that gap will likely grow larger as fuel prices continue to rise and more renewables come online. But hopefully, it’s clear from the above that you don’t have to settle for just paying less than you did for gas. You can make the most out of your transition to EVs by understanding and exercising your options. Suddenly, we have a lot of power at our disposal—it would be a shame not to use it.
An aerospace engineer with a life-long passion for anything with wheels or wings, Will has spent his career building everything from bicycles to bathrooms.
He once ran an after-hours communal car workshop in an abandoned South Bronx laundromat, restoring his first and last car, a Datsun 240z, and had a Suzuki SV650 blown up by ConEd.
Watts later followed his name and joined Tesla’s charging team, and now writes about EVs and infrastructure.
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