News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

California's Electric Cars Fill Their 'Tanks' For Half Price

Comparison shopping between gasoline and electric fuel | Photo: Department of Energy

If you're like most people considering moving to an electric car, you might have found it hard to estimate what it'll cost to drive the thing as you go about your daily life. Converting from miles per gallon per dollar to miles per kilowatt-hour per dolllar isn't the easiest bit of math to do in your head, especially when you have to go look at your electric bill to find out what you're paying for power.

But now the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has made that comparison a little easier. It turns out that electric cars are about half as expensive to drive in California as gasoline-powered cars -- once you get the car paid for.

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At the DoE's "eGallon" page, you can compare the price of a gallon of gas in your state with the cost of the electricity it would take an average electric car to drive you the same distance as the gallon of gas would get an average traditional car. The DoE explains:

We take the average distance that a gasoline-powered vehicle can drive on a gallon of gas (28.2 miles for comparable 2012 model year cars), and then calculate how much it would cost to drive the average EV that same distance.

As of Wednesday, June 12, according to the DoE, a gallon of gasoline costs an average $3.98 in California, while the equivalent "eGallon" of electrical power -- which would get a typical electric vehicle that 28.2 miles -- costs $1.51. That's just a few cents above half the cost to fuel a gasoline car.

California turns out to be a bit more expensive for electric cars relative to gasoline-powered ones. An Arizona eGallon costs about $1.07 at the moment, less than a third the price of a gallon of gas in that state (at $3.74 on Wednesday). Nevada's in about the same place, with an eGallon running at $1.17. Washington, the land of cheap hydroelectric power, has an eGallon running about 84 cents, less than one quarter the cost of gasoline there. Nationwide, eGallons average about one third the cost of their gasoline equivalents, according to the DoE.

And as the DoE points out, it's not just about the cheaper fuel, but about financial security:

Gasoline prices often spike up and down erratically because they're linked to international oil markets. Events half a world away can drive up the price we pay at the pump. High prices and uncertainty are a heavy burden for American consumers. On the other hand, the cost of electricity is regional and much more stable, so you generally don't have to worry about the wild gyrations seen in gas prices.
Chart: CREDIT/Department of Energy

The tool's slightly coarse-grained. Electricity prices vary significantly across California, as do gas prices and the performance of different models of gasoline- and electric-powered automobiles. But as a tool designed to give prospective electric car buyers a first take on what they can expect to pay to run their new rides, it's pretty cool.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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