There’s no doubt about it: sustainability and climate change are two of today’s most pressing issues. From beauty industry waste to seemingly every company going “carbon neutral,” the buzz is real. So, it’s no surprise that car manufacturers have been hopping on board. (For example, every Volvo car made since 2019 has an electric motor.) Though electric vehicles have been around for a while (the first electric car was made in 1890 by chemist William Morrison), it was the launch of the hybrid Toyota Prius that brought the technology to the masses. With the splashy debut of the then-elusive and exclusive Tesla in 2006, electric vehicles had another surge in popularity, and they’ve been on the rise ever since. Today, there’s a plethora of options and ever-evolving technology that begs the question: How much does an electric vehicle actually cost, both financially and environmentally? From the car itself to electricity and IRS tax credits, there are plenty of factors to weigh. So, we spoke with several environmental experts to get the scoop on everything you need to know before you head to the dealership.
Here’s How Much Electric Vehicles Actually Cost, Explained by Environmental Scientists
Plus, why they’re just as good (if not better) than a traditional car
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Meet the Experts
- Dr. Stephen Porder is the associate provost for sustainability at Brown University. He is a professor of environment and society and ecology, evolution, and organismal biology at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Dr. Porder guides the university’s decarbonization and other sustainability initiatives. He holds a master’s degree in geology from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. in ecology from Stanford University.
- Dr. Nikhil Koratkar is a professor in the mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he has taught since 2001. Additionally, Dr. Koratkar serves as an editor of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Letters and is a founder of the battery company Alsym Energy focused on grid energy storage. He holds a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park.
- Sophie Janaskie is the carbon strategy manager at Commons, an app that helps people track their carbon footprint and discover sustainable brands. She has worked in the sustainability space for over six years. Janaskie received a B.S. in environmental engineering and Master of Environmental Management (M.E.M) from Yale University and a MBA from Stanford University.
Why Are Electric Cars Better Than Gas and How Do They Work?
How do electric vehicles work? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Dr. Porder describes the cars as computers on wheels with electric motors. In The Atlantic, General Motors CEO Mary Barra claimed that the electric Ford F-150 performed better than the combustion engine in regard to torque, handling and performance—turns out, that was no exaggeration.
“When you turn on your light switch, it turns on instantaneously. When you rev up a gas engine, you must inject the fuel from the tank into the cylinder,” Dr. Porder explains. “You need to have an explosion; it needs to push something. All of that takes time and is sluggish. Electric motors are instantaneous.”
That’s why it feels like your electric car shoots forward at the touch of the accelerator pedal. But beyond speed, there are many practical factors that can make owning an electric vehicle more convenient. There are no oil changes, ever. No replacing the radiator, catalytic converter, timing belt or muffler. There’s really no maintenance, except for changing the tires, refilling your windshield cleaning fluid and maybe replacing the windshield wipers every once in a while. According to Bankrate, a transmission issue can run anywhere between $1,200 and $5,000 to repair, while broken motors fall between $150 and $1,100. Should you be unlucky enough to have to replace the catalytic converter (which can be easily stolen in some gas-powered cars), you can kiss up to $4,000 goodbye.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the whole point of owning an electric vehicle: No more pumping gas. No one (or, at least, we’d bet very few) has a gas station at their house, but you can plug in your car before you go to sleep and wake up with a full battery the next morning. No more idling at the gas station after work.
Janaskie also points to the positive effect electric vehicles can have on air quality, and therefore human health. “Tailpipe emissions from conventional gas-powered vehicles contain more than just greenhouse gases. They also emit sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other harmful pollutants, which are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular issues and disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Electric vehicles don’t have tailpipe emissions.”
From an environmental perspective, these cars have much lower emissions than their combustion engine counterparts. MIT’s CarbonCounter tool, which gathers data on the emissions and operation costs of various cars, shows that an electric Hyundai Kona creates about half the emissions of the original model and is slightly less expensive, too. Of course, there’s the argument that where you get your electricity from (renewables, coal, natural gas, etc.) matters, and to an extent, it does. However, in the grander scheme of things, Dr. Porder believes that the benefits far outweigh the cost.
“Even if you’re getting your electricity from coal, [electric cars are] still better over the lifetime of the vehicle than a gas car. Electric motors are so much more efficient. You’re comparing the coal fired electricity and a very efficient electric motor to a pretty inefficient gasoline powered motor, and it just beats it hands down.”
Of course, smaller cars will naturally be more efficient, cost-effective and produce less emissions, whether or not you go electric. Small cars require fewer materials to build and less energy to move. But even if you are eyeing an electric SUV, like the Tesla Model Y, GMC Sierra Denali, Ford F-150 or Hummer, that’s better than the gasoline version of the latter three. Example: The Hummer gets, on average, 11 or 12mpg with a 32-gallon gas tank. Dr. Porder estimates that the electric version probably sees somewhere between 45 to 50mpg, emissions-wise.
“Even if you take into account the emissions associated with the battery production and the fact that they’re heavier and that their electricity has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is often fossil fuels,” he says, “Even if you take all of those things into account over the lifetime of the vehicle, it will be much lower emissions than a gas vehicle.”
How Much Does It Cost to Charge an Electric Car?
The answer varies, based on your utility company’s rates, whether you use public charging ports, your driving habits and the type of car you have, Janaskie notes. Statista reports that in 2021, the average battery capacity of electric vehicles was 43kwh. Multiply that by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ national average cost of and that comes out to $7.31.
Janaskie breaks down the estimated cost to charge a Chevy Bolt, which Kelly Blue Book named the fourth most popular electric car. Let’s assume you’re charging the 2020 model. The range is 259 miles with a battery capacity of 66kwh. Factor in the charging efficiency rate of 85 percent, and the cost comes to $12.42, or about $0.05 per mile. Meanwhile, the average price of a gallon of gas is $3.58. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that a car’s average fuel economy in 2020 was 25.4mpg, so the cost comes out to about $0.14 per mile.
Another useful resource Janaksie recommends is the EPA’s Vehicle Cost Calculator, which compares fuel costs of many electric and conventional vehicles.
How Long Does It Take to Charge an Electric Car?
“For a home electric outlet, it could take up to 40 hours, but for Tesla's quick charging it can be much faster; four to five hours,” Dr. Koratkar notes. As Janaksie explains, there are three levels of charging stations: 1, 2 and 3. Level 1 uses a standard 120V outlet and Level 2 uses 240V. Both are AC (alternating current) chargers. Level 3, like the Tesla supercharger, uses DC (direct current), making it the quickest. Data culled by the U.S. Department of Transportation suggests that on average, a Level 2 charger would do the job in four to ten hours for a light-duty vehicle.
If you’re blanching, don’t. Unless you’re planning to embark on the next great American road trip, you probably won’t need to charge your car every day. For those who do and are able, a car charging port can be had for well under $1,000, even on Amazon, so that everything happens in your sleep—literally.
How Long Do Electric Car Batteries Last?
In terms of range, Dr. Porder likens a battery to a gas tank. The bigger the battery, the farther the car will go. (You must also take into account the car’s size.)
“A Hummer that’s going to go a hundred miles needs a way bigger battery than a Nissan Leaf that's going to go 100 miles, because the Hummer weighs so much that it needs an enormous battery,” he explains. So when, say, Tesla asks if you want to upgrade the range, what you’re really getting is a larger battery.
And thus the other question arises: the lifespan of a battery. The short answer is that it’s hard to say. Dr. Koratkar says that companies generally aim for ten years, with a goal of 20, but because the technology is relatively new, it’s difficult to project. Additionally, as Dr. Porder notes, technological advances happen continually that will always shift the conversation. For example, cobalt was a popular component in the early days, and there was a lot of chatter about how bad the mining process is and its limited supply. Today, the material is already being phased out in favor of lithium chemistries, which perform just as well. He also shares that because we are just coming to a point in time where batteries are needing replacement, a lot of infrastructure to recycle materials is new or just cropping up—but the important thing is that companies see the need.
“We [don’t really know the battery lifespan because] the chemistry keeps changing as these cars evolve,” he says. “The battery that I buy in a car today is not the same as the battery that I bought in a car five years ago. They keep working on the lifespan and trying to get it to degrade less and last longer.”
He also makes the point that just because your battery is only operating at 80 percent doesn’t mean it’s trash. Even if you replace it, you can use the old battery as, say, a backup generator for your home.
What You Need to Know About the IRS Electric Vehicle Tax Credit
Tax break? Sign us up. The IRS EV Tax Credit is a popular search term related to electric vehicles, trailing only working family and employee retention tax credits searched in the U.S., according to Google Trends. So here are the deets:
For cars purchased in 2023 through 2032, you can claim up to $7,500. If you bought your electric vehicle prior to that, the same credit applies, broken down as $2,917 for a car with a battery capacity of at least 5kwh, and $417 for any kwh over that. Owners of used electric vehicles also get a piece of the pie. To qualify, you must have purchased it before 2023 from a licensed dealer for less than $25,000. The credit is 30 percent of the purchase price or a maximum of $4,000.
Contrary to popular belief, an electric vehicle isn’t much more expensive than a gas-powered car. Kelly Blue Book reports that the average price of an electric car is $53,469, versus $48,334 for the latter. Apply the tax credit (assuming you buy this year) and the cost comes down to $45,969—$2,365 less than the traditional vehicle. Also consider that this is an average. If you go for the Chevy Bolt, that runs at $27, 495, per CNET, and the tax credit will bring the bill down to $19,995. A new Nissan Versa, the most affordable economy sedan, is about $17,075. Also take into account the long-term savings regarding maintenance and gas, calculated above.
So, Are There Any Cons to Electric Cars?
While the experts consulted didn’t cite any true cons, there are caveats to consider.
The first is how you’ll charge the vehicle. If you own your home or are able to install a Level 2 charging station in your residence, this likely isn’t a problem. However, if you rent or live in an urban environment where the public charging infrastructure isn’t well-developed, you’ll want to figure out how you’ll be juicing up the battery.
Plus, if you want to take a road trip every now and then, do note that, per Consumer Reports, the Tesla charging ports will be universal by 2024, meaning any brand of car will be able to use the superchargers. Several major automakers have also pledged to open an additional 30,000 stations. However, the transition is not yet complete, so in the meantime, if you road trip in an electric vehicle, you’ll need to be mindful of your car’s range and the available ports along your route.
Another thing to keep in mind is battery operation. Notably, batteries don’t perform as well in cold weather. This is due in part to running the heater and also because batteries just aren’t as efficient in frosty temps. This is, however, a minor consideration—Dr. Porder states that unless you’re living in subzero temperatures in Alaska and driving hundreds of miles a day, your car will operate just fine and get you where you need to go.
Caveats aside, Dr. Porder advises dropping the mentality of waiting for the next generation of technology.
“Yes, the next car will be better. But these cars are more than good enough and already better than gas cars, certainly from an environmental perspective. The climate footprint of an electric car, even including the way that the electricity is generated and including having to make the battery is much, much lower than the climate footprint of their gas car. If they’re interested in having a car that is more fun, has fewer repairs, and is more convenient and is better for the environment, [an electric car is the way to go].”