Inflation is on the minds of everyone in the country and worldwide. The price of gasoline is rising above $6 per gallon in California and $5 elsewhere. The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russian oil and gas exports add more price pressure. Some of us are paying more than $100 to fill our gas tanks. It’s a significant burden for those with limited income, even those making more than $15 per hour at work. Some are choosing between food and gas, or between healthcare and gas.
Just in time, the days of clean, affordable transportation are finally here — after two decades of car evolution.
In 2003, Susan Sarandon, Harrison Ford, and Cameron Diaz showed up at the Academy Awards in Priuses. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote an executive order creating a Hydrogen Highway Network in the state. (It never took off.) The Pumping Iron star rode around Sacramento for a time in a converted Hummer H2 tricked out with a hydrogen engine. And Elon Musk started his electric car company, TESLA, in 2003.
It’s been almost 20 years since the start of the green vehicle revolution—one whole generation. There are people driving today who weren’t even born in 2003.
After the first excitement, progress toward broad adoption of electric vehicles was slow. From 1980 to 2000, cars and other passenger vehicles became heavier and more powerful. Automobiles gained higher fuel mileage without sacrificing power. With gasoline relatively inexpensive, many drivers chose roomy SUVs and pickups with low mileage per gallon.
In the past couple years, though, the trends have changed, making electric vehicles a better choice than in the past. Today 9% of cars are electric vehicles, double the number a few years ago.
More and Better Choices for Your Budget
Consumers have more choices in green transportation today than ever. During the last Superbowl, there were seven commercials for cars, and six of those were for electric cars. According to Edmunds, the Ford F-series of pickup trucks was the most popular vehicle sold in 2021. In 2022, Ford introduced its F-150 Lightning, an electric pickup which sells for about $40,000, with up to $7,500 in tax credits.
Nissan, Chevrolet, and other car companies now sell affordable electric cars priced well within reach for the average consumer. Tesla provides the most popular electric vehicles on the roads and in 2021 the company’s growth rate was over 150%. While most Teslas are priced at the high end of the car market, putting them out of the reach of most working people, the Model 3’s base price is closer to $44,000. Not so terrible when you consider that Americans paid an average of $45,031 for a new car in late 2021.
Is this a tipping point for affordable, electric cars powered by renewable energy?
At first glance, EVs don’t look like a good deal because the sticker price of most EVs runs about $10,000 higher than a comparable gasoline powered model (see table).
Used with permission from Energy Innovations
When you consider the lifetime cost of driving the car, however, it’s another story. According to experts, gas vehicles might be cheaper to buy but are becoming much more expensive to operate than electric cars. “New research finds that in most states, new electric vehicles (EVs) are cheaper to own than gasoline-powered vehicles from the day they are driven off the lot on a monthly basis, even if the sticker price is higher,” says a report from Energy Innovations, a San Francisco-based think tank.
EI’s research shows that, on average, a consumer can save $6,000 over the lifetime of their electric vehicle compared to fossil fuel cars.
The tax credit makes a difference. “These savings are contingent on extending the existing federal EV tax credit; if EV incentives currently proposed in Congress are included, then EVs become cheaper in nearly every instance, opening up ownership for all Americans looking to purchase a new car.”
The Energy Innovation study found that EV models of the Hyundai Kona SEL and Ford F-150 “are cheaper in every single state to finance and own today than the equivalent gasoline model. The Volvo XC40 and Nissan models are just slightly more expensive, on the order of a few dollars or less, in several states where it is cheaper to own the gasoline version.” On the other hand, the EV version of the Kia Niro EX Premium didn’t fare as well compared with the gasoline powered model, which has very high fuel efficiency.
To decide whether to buy an EV and which one to buy, you’ll need to do your research because gas and electricity costs vary by state. In states with high gasoline prices and low electricity costs, EVs make more sense. In states with low gas prices and high electricity costs, like Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, the balance shifts more in favor of conventional cars.
Your vehicle’s carbon footprint
Burning fossil fuels like gasoline releases carbon, the primary driver of climate change. Today many utilities rely on carbon fuels like natural gas or coal to generate electricity, but as they bring more clean energy onto the grid, from wind, solar and water, charging an electric vehicle will generate significantly lower carbon emissions than conventional gas motors.
If you live in a state where utilities rely primarily on carbon fuels, your EV’s carbon footprint may not be much better than your gasoline powered car. But if you charge that same EV with solar power from your home’s roof, its carbon footprint shrinks dramatically.
You might have seen Hyundai and Toyota fuel cell vehicles parked outside your local Whole Foods. Hydrogen fuel cell cars run on hydrogen and create electricity and water, which sounds clean, but the hydrogen used in fuel cell cars and hydrogen burners can come from a natural gas feedstock.
Figuring out your car’s carbon footprint can be complicated, but one trend is clear: the nation is moving toward renewable energy and, therefore, away from fossil fuels.
Significant changes happen gradually, and some people must push hard for the change over time. But like mountain climbing, there are tipping points where the change gains momentum and accelerates. Eventually, it becomes the new normal. We’re on the way to electric cars becoming the new normal.
Jim Gunshinan is a science writer who covers energy and the environment. He was the editor of No Regrets Remodeling, Second Edition, a science blogger for a PBS affiliate, and editor of a magazine covering green home building and renovation. Jim lives in Walnut Creek, California