Talking Michigan Transportation

Is it really cheaper to charge a battery than to fill up a gas tank?

August 14, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 152
Talking Michigan Transportation
Is it really cheaper to charge a battery than to fill up a gas tank?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s podcast, Michael J. Coren, the Washington Post’s climate advice columnist, talks about his recent reporting (subscription) on the cost of filling a vehicle’s fuel tank versus charging an electric vehicle (EV) battery. 

The answer, he explains, is less straightforward than it seems. 

He writes, “Just calculating the cost of gasoline versus electricity is misleading. Prices vary by charger (and state). Everyone charges differently. Road taxes, rebates and battery efficiency all affect the final calculation.” 

Other references and links:

Finding on tailpipe emissions and EVs
https://www.realclearenergy.org/articles/2023/08/07/new_epa_tailpipe_standards_call_electric_vehicle_promises_into_question_970708.html

Pew research on Americans’ perceptions of EVs
https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/07/13/how-americans-view-electric-vehicles/

Energy Innovation study of the cost to fill up
https://energyinnovation.org/publication/how-much-does-it-cost-to-fill-up-an-electric-vehicle-vs-a-gas-powered-car/ 

The early adopter era is over for EVs
https://www.axios.com/2023/08/09/electric-cars-adoption-rates 

Jeff Cranson:

Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. This week I'll be speaking with Michael J. Coren, who is the Washington Post climate advice columnist. He had some very interesting reporting and insights in a column last week that wrestled with the question that's on a lot of people's minds, and that's whether it's really cheaper to charge a battery for an electric vehicle than it is to fill up a gas tank. So, Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Jeff Cranson:

Thank you so much glad to be here. So, I was really interested in your reporting. Obviously, those of us in Michigan have been following this evolution of EVs very closely, with some of our biggest employers the automakers going all in on it and with what the governor is doing and our economic development agencies trying to support more battery manufacturing here in the state. And you did some really thorough reporting on the big question that I think everybody still has, and that's; is this going to save money? You cited some studies, I think from Pew Research, that showed that while some of us might do this for the planet, just as many do it to save money. So, could you just kind of talk about your key takeaways?

Michael Coren:

Sure. So I think that there's this narrative out there that EVs are always cheaper, or, in some cases, people are saying actually now that electricity prices are higher and gasoline vehicles can be cheaper, and so I really wanted to dive into that question and do it in a rigorous way, which meant you can't just look at the gallon of gasoline or kilowatt hour of electricity. You really have to look at where you're charging, how you're charging and, in the case of a road trip, what state and how many miles of that state versus another state, because I also wanted to see about the emissions, and not every state's grid is the same. So, anyways, it took a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of data sets. So it's understandable

Michael Coren:

people don't normally do this, but what I found ultimately was that, for most people, the vast majority of the time, you're going to be saving anywhere between $20 to $80 per fill-up with an electric vehicle, and when I say fill-up, I basically equated the miles driven. If you're filling a gas tank of a specific vehicle with its comparable electric vehicle, obviously, if you have a battery that's different size, it won't fill up in the same way, and that assumes you're charging at home about 80% of the time, which is what the DOE, the Department of Energy, found to be general. Those numbers changed on road trips, but that's kind of the big picture.

Jeff Cranson:

So it's interesting. You talk about the size of the battery. I know one of your colleagues had done a pretty interesting story about that and about you know the diminishing returns if we try to get bigger batteries so that we can get more range, what that actually does to the efficiency. And you know the idea in the first place of reducing the carbon footprint. Can you talk a little about that?

Michael Coren:

Yes.

Michael Coren:

So you know, I think there's a America loves big vehicles and they keep getting bigger and they keep getting heavier, and, you know, electrics are no exception in some cases, and there's a good climate argument to be made that you don't want big batteries and maybe an even better one.

Michael Coren:

You don't need them the vast majority of the time, and so you know, I think it's there is a little bit chicken and egg problem here, because we don't have infrastructure for electric vehicles in terms of charging that's comparable to gasoline quite yet, and so there are cases where having that bigger battery provides some peace of mind, but in the long run we probably don't need to be hauling around 500 miles of range In a giant battery. It's just not efficient from a materials perspective, nor from sort of an efficiency, fuel efficiency perspective. That said, you know I don't think we're quite there where it's really fast convenience and omnipresent to just recharge your EV in any one place, which is why we have, you know, hybrids and you know, larger batteries and things like that. So that's, I think, the current state of affairs.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, and I think that's really interesting. It's something that you know. A lot of times these things are not a straight line, right? You have to look at it from different perspectives. So In your, your research, I mean, one of the things you did that was most interesting in this story was look at all 50 states and, sadly, Michigan was in the lower tier, at $35 in savings for a truck and $22 for an SUV and $29 for a sedan. Yeah, but it gets a lot more complicated when you look at the cost associated with traveling across multiple states. Talk about your findings on these hypothetical cross-country trips.

Michael Coren:

Absolutely, happy to do that. So the first trip that I modeled was for California, so that was actually San Francisco to Disneyland, about 408 miles, and the idea was you know, you're driving and one of America's most popular vehicles, the Ford F 150, and you're only charging at level three fast charger. So these are DC direct, current relatively expensive chargers. Compared to charging at home it's probably three to four times more expensive, about 44 or 48 cents per kilowatt hour, relative to 10 or 15 or 20. And so what I found was that you know, when you do that in California where you have high gas, high gas prices and relatively high electricity prices you still end up with the savings for EVs, although not a lot. So you're talking maybe $14 for an F 150 Lightning, which is the electric version of the conventional Ford.

Michael Coren:

Those savings increase with smaller vehicles. Somewhat you're at $18 or so. And then if you're charging on a level three chargers, which is at sorry level two, which is usually these are ones of businesses that charge a very small amount or they might even be free in many cases your savings could work for about $50. So that increased. But the big test was actually going cross-country. That was a Detroit to Miami trip. That was about 1400 miles and here we saw the Toyota Camry. Actually gasoline vehicle costs a little less than driving the Chevy Bolt. So it's about $168 versus the for the Chevy Bolt, versus $141 for Toyota Camry. That's primarily because level three chargers are expensive and electricity gasoline prices are relatively low in that region.

Jeff Cranson:

But key takeaway that you also included in your story is that it's not even close when you start talking about emissions.

Michael Coren:

That's right. So let's let you can assume that essentially you're gonna have a significantly more emissions per mile with any gasoline vehicle over any battery electric. So in this case taking the Camry on that road trip was about 1300 pounds of CO2 compared to 240 pounds for the Chevrolet Bolt. And that's because you know, for every kilowatt hour we generate there's just a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and every year that's getting cheaper. So the advantage you know is so large and it's even larger for larger vehicles and it's only gonna get better over time. So I should note again, like on that road trip, that where the Camry kind of edged out the bolt, if you're charging at a hotel overnight or at a restaurant you still have enormous savings. It was something on the order of you're only paying $40.00. So the whole trip At level two chargers.

Jeff Cranson:

So what's your thought? And I know this is, you know, a projection and a little bit of a crystal ball, but you talked about the places that provide the services. Obviously, they built it into their costs of doing business, whether it's grocery stores or hotels. How long do you think that will be the case? Because I mean, in the earliest days of the combustible engine, I don't think any of those businesses were letting cars fill up for free.

Michael Coren:

That's probably not, but gasoline is actually quite expensive and electricity, on a relative scale, is not if you're buying that in bulk.

Jeff Cranson:

Imagine if we had a meter on everything we plug in at home.

Michael Coren:

Yeah, I know your level one charger, which is just basically plugging your car into the outlet, is kind of like running a toaster for a long time and you're just slowly recharging your car. So it's not a huge amount of draw, it's just a fair amount of current over time. I don't know how long it'll last. It's a great question, you know. I think there's definitely a conviction amongst a lot of charger installers who are who say that grocery stores and places that the businesses are wanting to spend a lot of time are going to install chargers, and we're already seeing this. Whether they stay free or maybe they just stay relatively inexpensive is not clear yet, but I'm willing to bet that's going to be at least a part of the mix, especially at hotels, for example, where you know that for them, getting that business is going to be a much larger percent of their profit than the five or $10 that it costs for them to fill up your car overnight.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, absolutely, that makes sense. So you know I should have asked this earlier. But tell me this how d id you pitch a beat as a climate advice reporter at the Post, or did someone at the Post come up with that and come to you? I mean, how did that come to be?

Michael Coren:

That's a great question. Well, I had started a newsletter personal newsletter called Hot House years ago, and it was born out of the frustration that we often were covering problems and not solutions, and I wanted to explore this idea of what individuals can do and how they intersect with a little systematic change. And so I was working on that, and at the same time the Post created a position for climate advice columnist, and so we sort of came up with similar ideas along the same lines over the course of the last year or two and it worked out pretty well.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, no, I think it's really cool, it's a very good niche, thank you. So let's talk a little bit about this. And this is again kind of conjecture, I realize, not surprising at the findings that break down on partisan lines and that, you know, democrats, younger adults, urban residents, are more open to buying an electric vehicle, but do you see signs of that changing? I mean, one thing that's puzzled me is why it is somebody on the right side of the political spectrum has this, like you know, instinctive reaction against anything that you know is tied to climate. And you know sustainability, and I get it, I guess, if you, if you live in Texas or somehow, you know your livelihood depends on the fossil fuel industry, but most people aren't that. So I mean, what do you think that's all about?

Michael Coren:

So I think about that a lot and I actually think people who are opposed to climate action, who identify as right or on the right or as conservative, aren't necessarily opposed to actions that benefit climate.

Michael Coren:

And what I mean by that is many will say they support wind or solar or carbon capture or even government action on climate, but not in those terms.

Michael Coren:

They do it for reasons of cost or reasons of national security or energy independence, and that what's happened is that climate, like many things in this country, has become part of the culture war, and these are not beliefs that people necessarily hold intrinsically based on the actual issues at hand, but because of a political identity on the left or the right, and was associated with that.

Michael Coren:

And so in many times, what you'll see in the polling is people are, you know, opposed quote unquote to climate action, but then they support many actions that will actually ultimately reduce emissions or increase resilience. So I do think it's basically that a lot of things, especially the word climate, has gotten wrapped up in the culture war and that for the next I don't know maybe 5-10, maybe more years, that discussion, when it comes to bipartisan action, will need to look and sound different, even if some of the policies are the same, but it wasn't that long ago, just 10 years ago, that Republicans in the Senate John McCain, Lindsay Graham were writing the you know, the primary climate action bills for Congress. So you know, things change.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I mean you can imagine if McCain were alive today and was still living in Arizona what he'd be thinking. So, yeah, the point you made about energy independence is a good one. There's a guy named Jay Hakes who was for a while with the federal Office of Energy Information and then ran the Carter Library, the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, but he wrote a book called A Declaration of Energy Independence, like 2008. I believe it featured a cartoon with presidents across several administrations, I think maybe going back to Eisenhower, kind of starting the sentence on how you know, my goal is to make us energy independent and ending up with, maybe Carter. You know so. All these presidents have said that and at that point I talked about it for that many years. And that's where we're still at right. We're still talking about energy independence.

Michael Coren:

Yeah, I don't think that that should be the goal.

Michael Coren:

And, you know, even though the US is the largest exporter of, I believe, at the moment, of gas fossil fuels, like it doesn't mean that we that we aren't dependent on the rest of the world.

Michael Coren:

I think there's very few things that are truly independent rather than, I think, being resilient, which is a much better goal. And, you know, in this case, I think that that argument is ultimately much more productive, in that we aren't going to be eliminating fossil fuels overnight and we need to sort of be all in on getting cheap, clean energy into the system as fast as possible. And I think you know the I will say this the economics of solar, wind storage and, increasingly, hydrogen and other forms of relatively or completely clean energy are such that they're making the case for them, for themselves in a way that you know goes beyond politics, and so the focus should be essentially driving them to as cheap and fast as possible, and that that it becomes the natural decision for businesses and the government, rather than maybe staking out sort of cultural world culture, culture war territory on this one.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, no, that's a really, really good point, and I think you're right to about shifting the argument away from energy independence and going to your point about those alternative energy sources. A lot of Midwestern states certainly Michigan is one of them you can drive across a lot of counties where people vote probably for people who are not in the same place on climate as people in the urban areas, but a lot of those people in those rural areas have been happily citing wind turbines for quite some time now. Yes, so, I guess the last thing I'm interested in is this issue of whether or not we're going to have whether is that there's confidence among the public that there will be enough charging infrastructure in the future. I know that was discussed in the poll too, and a lot of people cite that as that is. You know the reason they're still. You know I might want to buy an electric vehicle, but right now I don't trust that the, the various partners in both private sector and government, are going to provide me enough of a charging network.

Michael Coren:

Yeah, it's a great question. If you own a Tesla today, I think that that is not a question you ask. Right, it exists and there are very few cases where you don't have access to that, at least around any of the population centers and the places in between. So what I'd say is it is early days and there are times when it is inconvenient to find a charger. I've taken road trips with an electric vehicle and I personally have not had any problem. It hasn't been every time as smooth as gasoline, but I would say that the difference has been marginal.

Michael Coren:

I know in other cases people haven't had that experience and it is a problem and it's a race between the accelerating adoption of EVs and the spread of reliable infrastructure. What seems to be happening is that North America is moving towards the Tesla standard and Tesla, which operates the largest and most reliable electric charging network, as far as I know, is basically going to become the template and maybe even the standard increasingly for that network. If the industry and government can get behind a standard, whether that's Tesla or not, I think this could move much faster than it has been in the past. So at the moment I haven't looked at this recently, but I think if you're living in a major city or along major highways in the most United States, and especially if you have a charger at home, this isn't much of an issue, and I actually bought an EV and have had that experience. If you are relying on public chargers for 100% of your charging or you're taking long road trips, then, yes, it's probably kind of like the early days of gasoline, where not every place has something.

Michael Coren:

But I always think about the fact that electricity is not something you have to pump out of the ground, refine, put into a truck and then put into a tank and then build a tank for it. It's everywhere. It's literally in every outlet, in every socket, and so you can plug in almost anywhere. Can you do it exactly the way you want, or with the right outlet, or is it always available? No. But in terms of building on the infrastructure, it's going to be different than having to build out what we did for gasoline.

Jeff Cranson:

I think I would have more confidence that we're going to get to that uniform charging mechanism if we got cell phone manufacturers to agree on one kind of cord for charging.

Michael Coren:

Yes, that's probably a good point. There's, yeah, the standards battles have always been very painful, but I think the I will say the automakers have to make electric, vehicles work, because they put so much money on them, and if they don't, they just won't survive this transition, and so I think there's a lot of incentives all pushed in the same direction, but they definitely have to coordinate.

Jeff Cranson:

Where do you think we're going in terms of you know the kind of labor that's needed and what goes on that has its own environmental threats in terms of the mining of the materials for the batteries? Is a lot of that overblown or just one more way for the critics to throw something out there? Is there a legitimate discussion there?

Michael Coren:

It's a great question, so you know I've actually been writing a column about this. I will say first there are real costs to mining clean energy minerals like that. We can't ignore that, and I think the human costs are particularly significant because these are things like cobalt and lithium and they may be taking in place in countries or under regimes that don't respect human rights or environmental protection, and so we need to avoid replicating the mistakes of the fossil fuel era, where many of those things were ignored. That said, I think the idea that we have to mine minerals for clean energy and electric vehicles therefore it's bad is profoundly, I think, misleading, given that fossil fuels have taken such enormous toll, both on the planet and, I think, on many societies.

Michael Coren:

So I looked at the numbers and something around every year, like 15 billion tons of fossil fuels are mined and extracted. In 2020, about 28 million tons of minerals for the low carbon energy were mined, so we're talking about hundreds of times difference between the two. Whether that ends up that way is a bit of an open question, but even the most conservative estimates that I saw said it's going to be five times more extractive to rely on fossil fuels than clean energy. So there really isn't, and five times is huge. 500 is even bigger, but five times is still very big. So I think that the idea that we need to focus on how we extract these minerals is important, but let's not lose sight that fossil fuels are an order of magnitude larger.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, well said. And that brings me to the last point I wanted you to talk about a little bit, and that's the social costs of carbon. Can you talk about your insight there?

Michael Coren:

Sure, I think in the EVs we always talk about what is the cost to fill up or what are the costs to buy, and that's all well and good, but obviously there's something that's even more important in many ways for many people, which is what is the cost to our future, and that's to our society, it's to our country, it's to the world and to the future the environment.

Jeff Cranson:

And so to our posterity.

Michael Coren:

That's right, and I don't think it's zero. I think everyone puts some value on that and probably a lot higher, honestly, than what the government officially does, which is it varies between a few dollars per ton of CO2 under the Trump administration up to more than 100 under a proposal, I think under the current administration, but I think the number that has been agreed upon a lot in literature is around 50 cents in climate damage per gallon of gasoline we burn, which contributes about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But when you look at all of the costs and that's air pollution, accidents, congestion, other things the damage bill might even be closer to $3 per gallon. There's a lot of assumptions that go into it, but the point is it's not free and unfortunately it's also not priced, so we don't actually pay that at the pump or even when we plug in, and so this, I think, is something that is actually driving more people to switch to EVs than maybe we give credit for it, which should always be on our minds.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I could not agree with you more there. Michael, thank you so much for sharing your insights and making us smarter. I really appreciated your story it had a lot of good stuff in there that we could keep shooting over probably for hours, but I appreciate you giving us a rundown.

Michael Coren:

Happy to do it, thank you.

Jeff Cranson:

I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

Cost and Emissions of Electric Charging
Climate Action and Electric Vehicle Concerns
Transportation Costs and Switching to EVs