Those thinking of buying an electric car will probably want to make the case for saving money, but exactly how much does it cost to charge an electric car? Recombu Cars did the maths and looked into whether they are a viable alternative to a petrol or diesel.
It is very easy for critics to say electric cars are "just as polluting" and "not actually cheaper than a petrol or diesel", but both comments are sweeping generalisations from people who have a reason to dislike them. But is there any truth to the sentiment?
We dusted off our trusty calculator and looked at specific electric cars to find out how much they cost to fill up and other aspects of ownership. But before that, we should explain the basics, including some of the pros and cons.
How to charge an electric car?
The easiest way and one encouraged by some car manufacturers is to install a home charging unit, typically in a garage. Some, such as Mitsubishi, the kit for free, which means there is no excuse if you have the space to accommodate it.
By using a home charging unit, you can plug your car in at night and let it charge up while you sleep so you have the electric car's maximum range at your disposal in the morning. Besides convenience, home charging units will recharge a car faster than a standard 240v plug socket so quick top-ups in the middle of the day are more useful.
When out and about, you can charge an electric car at service stations along a motorway and within more built-up areas and cities. Some areas are better served than others, with London a particularly good area to own an electric car in the UK.
Various tools let you locate the nearest electric charging point when out and about and there are a number of schemes and apps, such as Podpoint, that try to make life as easy as possible. Plus some cars have their own in-built maps that factor in a charge on a drive, such as the Tesla Model S.
Can I charge an electric car for free?
It is possible although one of the major providers, Ecotricity, just introduced a cost for using its chargers around the UK, echoing a move made by provider – a move that has been criticised as counter-productive given that eco-car adoption is in a fragile state.
The current trend seems to be the idea of paying more to use a supercharger, a car charger that is substantially faster at pumping electric into a battery. This is the thing used by Tesla to recharge a Model S or Model X in around an hour.
Speaking of Tesla, it recently announced future customers will have to pay to charge their cars using a supercharger. It hopes this will help stop the issue of owners hogging the bays – an issue we experienced during our week with the Model S P90D.
What are the main benefits of an electric car?
Electric cars will remain exempt from paying any car tax after April 2017, unlike most hybrids and plug-in hybrids. The exception is if your newly registered car costs more than £40,000, in which case you are whacked by a 'nice things tax'. £310-a-year for five years for a total of £1,550.
A cheap electric car will, therefore, be more tempting after April 2017. Then there is the fact you can get into London without having to pay the congestion charge, which costs £11.50 a day (£10.50 if you register for Auto Pay) or £14 if you pay a day later.
There are also talk of allowing electric cars to use bus lanes, give them priority at traffic lights and maybe even let them drive down one-way streets the wrong way in certain UK cities. Lower or exemption from parking fees is another benefit, with Westminster in London an example.
Mechanically speaking, electric motors are meant to be easier to fix and less costly than a petrol or diesel engine, which is another plus in the long run.
Is an electric car practical?
It really depends on your driving habits. Electric cars, unlike hybrids and plug-in hybrids, are hamstrung by their range because there is no petrol engine to back you up if it runs out – you are unable to use a jerry can to make an emergency top-up.
Most electric cars offer around 100 miles of range on a single charge, but this varies depending on whether you are running the air conditioning or other interior gadgets that draw power from the battery, the level of regenerative braking, how heavy you are with the accelerator and outside temperature.
Speaking of which, some cars keep the battery at a constant temperature to avoid cold days eating into your potential range, but not all do so this is another pointer that needs to be taken into account.
Then there is the fact you may have the range to get to a location in one charge, but can you get back as well? It may be impossible or very slow to top your car up on the way if using a normal plug and not all journeys will present you with a charging point mid-way, depending on the area.
But for those who do a lot of short journeys or can afford the Tesla Model S or Model X, which in its bigger capacity versions can manage more than 250 miles on a single charge, an electric car is worth considering because filling up an electric car is cheap and it is far cleaner in terms of local emissions.
Plus you can cheat a bit with the likes of the BMW i3 94Ah, which can be had with a little Range Extender petrol engine that is there solely to recharge the battery and not turn the wheels. Although CO2 is created, it does mean you can go further on a charge and fill up with petrol if you get stuck.
Electric cars, ultimately, become a poor choice for those who spend their life on the road, do a lot of long journeys and lack somewhere to charge their car at home, but everyone else could potentially make it work with a bit of research into charging point locations.
Arguably the biggest hurdle for motorists is the habit change – a lot of drivers can never get past the range anxiety thing. Plus electric cars make little noise, which is a problem for petrolheads who love the roar of a V8 or V10.
How do you work out the cost of charging an electric car?
The most important aspect of working out how much it costs to charge an electric car is the price you pay pay for one hour of using your electric provider's energy grid. The cost for one kilowatt hour (kWh) is usually around 10 to 14 pence, but it will vary from provider to provider. Check a bill or ring up customer services to see what you pay for one kWh.
What is a kWh?
A kilowatt hour (kWh) is measure of how much energy you are using. One kWh refers to using 1,000 watts of electricity over one hour. To recharge an electric car takes time, depending on the rate of electric being pumped into your car and the total battery capacity. A 100kWh battery of a Tesla will, for example, require a longer charge to recharge than a 30kW Nissan Leaf.
Crudely speaking, the kWh cost is the equivalent to what you pay per litre for fuel at the pumps and the time it takes to recharge is the equivalent of the fuel tank size.
So how much does it cost to charge an electric car?
To work this out, you need to multiply your cost per kWh by the battery capacity in kW. So a Tesla Model S 100D will work out as 12 pence (0.12) multiplied by 100, giving it a total charging cost of £12 assuming, of course, you are charging from completely empty to full. Most car chargers are clever enough to know when to cut off so there is little or no wasted energy.
While we are here, the likes of Economy 7 will reduce the cost of electric at night, which is when most people will charge their electric car. This sort of tarriff tends to be reccommended if more than 40 per cent of your consumption happens at night, usually between 12:30am and 7:30am, so it could be worth considering for those who frequently need to charge their electric car.
Example electric and hybrid car charging costs
Although there are other factors that need to be taken into account for a true cost of electric car motoring, which we will get to later, working out the price of each charge is a good place to start. Here are some examples using an example 12p per kWh rate.
Renault Zoe: 22kW battery at 12p per kWh = £2.64
Nissan Leaf: 30kW battery at 12p per kWh = £3.60
Mitsubishi Outlander: 12kW at 12p per kWh = £1.44
Hyundai Ioniq Electric: 28kW at 12p per kWh = £3.36
Tesla Model S P100D: 100kW at 12p per kWh = £12
BMW i8: 33kW at 12p per kWh = £3.96
Are electric cars actually good for the environment?
It largely depends on where your electric supply comes from. In Norway, where a large part of the energy grid is supplied by clean energy sources, it is a resounding yes. If you have a lot of solar panels on your roof, that is a yes too. But reliance on a nasty coal station? The answer becomes less clear.
The UK now generates 46 per cent of its total electricity from low-carbon sources, with 2015 the first year it outstripped coal. This is thanks to a rise in power generated by wind and nuclear sources. Gas provides 30 per cent of the UK's electricity.
You also have to factor in the process of manufacturing and acquiring the materials for a lithium ion battery, one of the most polluting of which is cobalt. Global warming, environmental pollution, mining and human health have been listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency as potential harmful impacts.
There is also the issue of recycling electric car batteries. Tesla claims up to 70 per cent of its batteries can be reused, but an average across all batteries would be nigh-on impossible to work out and there is still the issue of the remaining 30 per cent.
Hardly a good start for electric cars, then, but local emissions is becoming a big problem. Germany, for instance, had to ask drivers to leave their cars at home to reduce the issue of smog. The UK is going to clamp down harder on heavily polluting vehicles as it works towards emissions targets (that may or may not be carried over after Brexit, which is another potential environmental concern).
5.5-million premature deaths are being attributed to air pollution, according to the latest figures from a worldwide scientific study. To put that into context, 8,697 deaths were linked to alcohol in Britain in 2014 compared with 40,000 a year for air pollution. That makes breathing more dangerous than over-drinking.
Combustion engine particulates, particularly diesels, cause a manner of issues for the human body, including cancer, asthma and lung disease. There have also been reports air pollution can affect your driving ability for the worse and give you bad skin. And that means less flattering selfies.
Electric cars create zero local emissions so you could stand next to one for days and see no negative effect. Except boredom, perhaps. Over a period of ten years, a diesel and petrol car would have spewed out huge amounts of CO2, N0X and other nasty gases, likely outweighing the emissions created to make an electric car.
You also need to factor in the reliance on fossil fuels. An electric car is potentially harmful to the environment when built, yes, but after that you could, in theory, recharge it using the power of the sun. That makes it substantially more environmentally-friendly than a petrol or diesel you need to fill up using an always harmful process. Plus there is a big chance we will run out of oil – what then?
Would it be possible for everyone to have an electric car?
It is worth noting that, according to one source, the UK only makes six per cent more electric energy than it needs. America, meanwhile, actually has a deficit of 19 per cent, which is why it has to import energy to meet demands.
Therefore it would be impossible for every car owner to make the jump to electric cars, or even plug-in hybrids, even though global warming is at least reducing our reliance on central heating in the UK.
Let's also remember that the adoption of electric cars will be costly for the Government as it will lose considerable revenues from fuel taxation. Until it introduces another tax or changes the system, that is. No wonder, then, the plug-in grant awarded to electric cars and hybrids became harder to get in its full £4,500 form.
What about electric car resales and residuals?
Electric car batteries seem to be lasting longer than expected, but that is only half the problem. You see, a second-hand buyer is likely to take issue with buying a used Nissan Leaf that is no longer covered by its battery warranty because replacing a battery is very expensive. Think thousands.
Tesla tried to combat the problem by introducing a buy-back scheme, which guaranteed a residual value of an equivalent Mercede, while other manufacturers try to be very generous with the warranty. But neither make the problem go away fully.
It is, therefore, sensible to entertain the idea of running an electric car for as long as you can, ideally until it dies, lease the battery from a manufacturer (for a monthly sum) or research the second-hand value before the warranty expires and see if there is a time it would make sense to get rid of it.
We found a 64-reg Nissan Leaf Acenta five-door on AutoTrader for £10,495, complete with three owners and 10,091 miles on the clock. Battery capacity is 24kW for this model. An equivalent brand new Leaf with the same capacity costs from £20,790 if you lease the battery of £24,190 if you don't want the monthly cost.
That is, of course, assuming the Leaf would actually sell at that price, which is difficult for us to say. The simple fact is that potential buyers should bear in mind the future resale value and consider whether leasing the battery makes more sense.
So how much can money can an electric car save?
For those who just want to save money, an electric car is substantially cheaper to run per mile, given that a car with a 40-litre fuel tank and a 113p petrol price will cost £45.20 to fill up.
Let's assume said petrol car can do 30 mpg. There are 4.54 litres in a gallon so you can travel 264 miles (8.81 gallons multiplied 30) on one tank of fuel for £45.20. A Tesla Model S can do that one charge for £12. So the Tesla saves you £33.20 every time you fill up.
But then you need to factor in the higher cost of buying an electric car, which means you will be in a deficit until you drive enough miles. And by driving a lot of miles, you eat into your battery warranty, which means it will be harder to sell on and worth less.
Suffice to say, you should bust out the calculator to see if an electric car will save you enough to make it worthwhile, especially if your kWh cost is much higher. The cheaper the initial outlay on an electric car, the quicker it will pay for itself, basically.
Phew! So should I buy an electric car, then?
If it seems like a somewhat confusing area of motoring, that is because it is and in delving into the subject we have potentially ended up making the subject more complicated. But that only confirms what we have known all along, there is no one size fits all answer for electric car ownership.
If you can afford an electric car and it works for you, go for it. You will enjoy blissfully quiet motoring, typically nippy performance, remain immune to rising petrol costs, avoid car tax and prevent little Johnny from being gassed to death at the school gates.
For everyone else, you may be better off in a hybrid until the UK's charging network infrastructure catches up and the UK's energy grid becomes even greener and electric cars drop in price.
Got a question about the cost of charging an electric car or want to share your experiences? Feel free to drop a comment below.