Financial incentives. Mining abuses. The end, gradually, of combustion engines. Elon Musk.
Electric vehicles have been having a moment. Wall Street is almost as excited about them as Gov. Jay Inslee, who announced in August that new gasoline-powered cars wouldn’t be sold in Washington after 2035. That announcement came on the heels of a similar prohibition by California lawmakers and the creation of new federal incentives meant to make EVs cost competitive with their fossil fuel-fueled cousins. Plus, this past summer’s soaring gas prices triggered many to toy with the idea of owning an EV.
Taken together, the developments are more than enough to make one wonder what comes next as the private automobile goes electric.
When we asked what you wanted to know about all things EV, the questions ran the gamut from electric car essentials to their environmental impact to whether Washington’s electrical grid is up to the task. (Musk went unmentioned in the dozens of responses we received. So thank you.) Here’s what we can tell you:
What’s up with the cost?
There’s no getting around it — sticker shock’s a hazard on an EV. The average cost for a new EV currently stands at over $66,000, nearly $22,000 more than average of a non-luxury car. That new electric cars, when they’re available at all, almost always sell above the MSRP adds to the headache. With EV costs up 15.6% from 2021, according to a Kelly Blue Book accounting released in September, shoppers could be forgiven for suspecting that EVs will remain a luxury product available only to drivers who can take on a big loan and put a charger in their garage.
We’ll get to charging in a moment. When it comes to the cost of the cars, a couple of developments may give shoppers some relief.
The one you may’ve noticed is a suite of new government incentives meant to chip away at those prohibitively high prices. Washington shoppers can already enjoy partial or full sales-tax exemptions on new EVs that cost less than $45,000 and used EVs sold for less than $30,000.
Incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August provide tax credits for some electric vehicles beginning in 2023. Automakers and others have faulted restrictions on the tax credits that cut out manufacturers that rely on parts made outside the United States. The credits are a bit of a work in progress.
The second important trend to watch is that major automakers — including GM and Ford, which had until recently surrendered the EV market to Tesla — are rolling out new models targeting the bottom edge of the new car market.
Chevy cut the price of its entry-level Bolt EV by $3,400 for the 2023 model year, to $26,595, undercutting the Nissan Leaf, long the most economical new EV. The increased supply of electric cars generally should drive down prices in the used car market, too.
Maintenance costs on an all-electric vehicle are lower than a conventional car. The batteries are designed to last for the expected life of a vehicle and often carry a 100,000-mile warranty. Though some models have had batteries catch fire due to design or manufacturing failures, the battery packs are encased in sealed shells and built to deactivate if there’s a collision or short circuit.
Cool, but what about the charging?
Charging stations are complicated, slow and expensive, and there aren’t enough of them. But that’s all changing.
First, the basics. The amount of time it takes to charge an EV depends on the amount of charge the battery needs and the capacity of the system delivering that electricity.
If you buy an EV and charge it on a standard 110-volt outlet, it’ll take longer than doing so with a purpose-built wall charger pulling the same voltage, or 220-volt outlet similar to those that power a clothes dryer. Most drivers won’t need more power — plugging the car in overnight should deliver a full charge.
None of that is much help to folks without a driveway, or who want to travel farther than an electric car can go on one charge. That’s why municipalities, including the city of Seattle, are standing up streetside charger programs that will put publicly accessible chargers in parts of the city where residents can’t home charge.
On Tuesday, the federal Transportation Department also gave states the go-ahead to start building a national network of EV charging stations meant to ensure that there is a high-capacity charging station every 50 miles on all interstates. The fast-charging stations can fully power up most vehicles in less than an hour, although a lack of parts — and federal requirements that the parts must be U.S.-made — may slow the network’s growth.
As far as the cost, it depends on — surprise, surprise — the price of electricity, which was 10.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in Washington as of July. Based on their size and how they’re driven, most electric cars go 4 to 5 miles on a kilowatt-hour. That works out to a monthly cost that’s about one third of a gas-powered car.
Seems like a lot of power. What about the power grid?
Responding to a heat wave this summer, California officials asked EV owners to avoid charging their vehicles at peak hours when air conditioners were humming across the state. Some conservative pundits and lawmakers held up that directive as evidence that EVs were bound to crash the power grid. Facts were, and are, more complicated.
Greenhouse gas pollution — the problem EVs are in part meant to address — is making power generation and distribution tricky. Warming temperatures will shift the way energy is consumed; transportation electrification will be part of that shift, but not the lone driver. A recent estimate by researchers at Stanford University forecast that peak electricity demand could rise by 25% in Western states if EVs are adopted at the expected rate.
But there’s a “but.” If more EV owners are able to charge their cars during the day, and smart charging technologies are deployed as expected, that increase in peak load will shrink.
Utilities are already rewarding EV owners who charge at off-peak times. That’s usually at night right now, but will shift as more drivers plug in. By improving the grid and coaxing people to use electricity judiciously, experts contend vehicle electrification isn’t a threat to the grid.