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For some electric vehicle owners, recharging now more costly than filling up

Electric Vehicles
Posted at 8:28 AM, Feb 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-14 10:28:38-05

Here's how much electricity prices have surged in parts of New England this winter: For some drivers of electric vehicles and hybrid cars, it's now more expensive to charge up than to fill up.

Power rates across the region have jumped an average of 30% since last summer, while gasoline prices have receded well below their peak in June of 2022. Web engineer Matt Cain, who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, said he ran a price comparison when his electricity bill shot up in January and found that his overall costs for utilities had climbed a whopping 50%.

"We have a Prius Prime that we normally drive around town, and we drive most of it on electricity. It's now 50% more expensive than fueling it with gas," he told CBS MoneyWatch.

Cain said the price hike hasn't changed his driving habits. But it has prompted his wife, who works at a local community college, to charge the car at work where it's cheaper. "It's not a point of pain for me, but it's something I've noticed," he said.

On Reddit, other EV owners have noted the rising recharging costs. One Massachusetts resident said their power company, National Grid, jacked up local electricity prices to 44 cents per kilowatt-hour — three times the national average.

"We are in pretty much the same boat in [New Hampshire] and it sucks," said another user. "Went from an average of $220 a month electric bill... to now close to $400 a month and that's with off-peak charging, and it's supposed to go up again significantly in February." The rate hike pushed the user to sign up for a solar array, with a monthly bill around half their current power bill, the person added.

To be sure, these drivers are a small minority of EV owners nationwide. But the episode illustrates how the volatility of fuel prices can complicate the equation when choosing between an electric and a conventional combustion-engine vehicle. And given the higher sticker prices for EVs — which can cost at least $10,000 more than the equivalent gas-powered car — that could tip the balance for some car buyers.

Blame natural gas

New Englanders are seeing uniquely high EV charging costs because the region currently has the highest electricity prices in the country. At about 28 cents per kilowatt-hour this fall, it's double the national average.

Ironically, it's the region's dependence on fossil fuels that's pushing these costs higher. About 45% of New England's electricity comes from methane gas, compared with about 38% nationwide, while the fuel has tripled in price since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. All the region's utilities are raising their electricity rates, although the specific costs can vary a lot even within a small area, WBUR reported this fall.

The spike in electricity rates recently led 90 local politicians to write to Massachusetts' utility commission calling for relief. At the same time, gas prices in the area have fallen from over $5 a gallon this summer to $3.40 today.

"In a large portion of the country, EVs are a lot cheaper to drive," said Beia Spiller, director of the transportation program at Resources for the Future (RFF), a clean-energy think tank. "It really, really depends on the location."

RFF recently analyzed car ownership data in Massachusetts and found that, at least through 2020, it cost about twice as much on a per-mile basis to drive a gasoline-fueled car than an EV.

While electricity prices have gone up recently because of global events, historically, "gasoline prices are far more variable," she noted. "You have no idea if there's going to be a war somewhere and all of a sudden you're paying $5 to $6 a gallon for gasoline prices."

Other factors affecting costs

The tradeoff between electric and gas is not only based on someone's location (and how much different fuels cost to them), but also based on the car.

For instance, muscle cars and SUVs will almost always be cheaper to operate in their electric versions. So will luxury cars, according to a report from the Anderson Economic Group that estimated the cost of fueling different car types.

Christopher Hogan, a retired health economist in northern Virginia, had his own price shock when he and his wife drove their Prius Prime to Ocean City, Maryland, last summer. Hodge usually runs the car on gas for long trips, but this time "on a lark we found a station and decided to plug in," Hogan said.

He was astonished to see the price — $1.50 per kilowatt-hour — about 12 times what he pays for electricity at home. "It's like these ATMs with a $15 fee," he said.

Still, Hogan said the experience hasn't turned him off his Prius. "I always thought it was hype — I didn't care that much" about EVs, he said. "But it's so relaxing. It pushes all my buttons. It's as convenient as gas cars, good for the environment and it's fun to drive."

Hogan also remains a convert. Asked if he would consider buying a conventional car, he said, "Not a chance. I would never buy a non-hybrid car — that's depreciated technology."

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