How rising PG&E rates are affecting California’s electric car owners

Austin Ball of Walnut Creek, who saw Tesla charging at home on March 4, says the fuel cost gap between gasoline and electric vehicles has narrowed since PG&E rates increased.

Austin Ball of Walnut Creek, who saw Tesla charging at home on March 4, says the fuel cost gap between gasoline and electric vehicles has narrowed since PG&E rates increased.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle

California wants residents to buy electric vehicles to fight climate change, to the point of ending sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.

“It’s crazy,” said Austin Ball, a Walnut Creek engineer and Tesla Model 3 driver whose PG&E bill has more than doubled this year.

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In Petaluma, Davinder Banger said he’s paying about $20 per charge at a Supercharger this year, compared to $10 to $14 previously to charge his Tesla Model Y. Banger, 48, said he still saves money on his commute to Contra Costa County compared to what he would pay for gas.

“But I’ve noticed a change,” he said.

Electrification advocates worry that rising rates will keep people from trading in their gasoline cars for electric cars at a time when the state needs them to make the switch.

It costs about $73 to fill the tank of a Toyota Camry and travel about 500 miles, says Jack Conness, an electrification policy analyst at Energy Innovation, a Bay Area-based nonpartisan climate policy think tank. Based on data from PG&E and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, he estimated that driving the same distance in a Tesla Model 3 would cost about $32 to charge, while the Chevrolet Bolt would cost $43.

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That means Tesla drivers will still save about $41 and Bolt drivers $30 on gas costs.

That’s less than the inflation-adjusted savings of about $59 for the Model 3 (based on 2022 gas and electricity prices) and about $51 in savings for the Bolt.

According to a study by Cox Automotive, a new electric car costs an average of about $2,039 more than a conventional gas-powered car in January. But e-vehicles have lower maintenance, repair and fuel costs. Rising electricity prices risk scaring potential new owners concerned about their bills, said Severin Borenstein, an economist and professor at UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute in Haas.

“We’re discouraging people from doing something that we really need to do,” Borenstein said.

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Kevin Mullin of Orlando checks out a bZ4X, an all-electric vehicle, in the Hansel Toyota showroom in Petaluma on Jan. 19.  Some fear that rising PG&E rates will reduce interest in buying electric vehicles.

Kevin Mullin of Orlando checks out a bZ4X, an all-electric vehicle, in the Hansel Toyota showroom in Petaluma on Jan. 19. Some fear that rising PG&E rates will reduce interest in buying electric vehicles.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Mark Toney, executive director of the nonprofit The Utility Reform Network, said there is “much more at stake” in rising energy bills than just household budgets.

“We need to understand the impact of these rate increases on climate change,” he said.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 70% of people interested in buying electric cars said saving money on gas was an important factor in their thinking.

The increase in PG&E rates affects a significant portion of the nation’s electric vehicle drivers: The utility says about 1 in 7 electric vehicles nationwide are connected to the utility’s California electric grid.

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A man passes the time in a folding chair as he waits for his Model S to charge at a supercharger at the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets on January 19.  Charging an electric vehicle has become more expensive due to rising PG&E rates.

A man passes the time in a folding chair as he waits for his Model S to charge at a supercharger at the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets on January 19. Charging an electric vehicle has become more expensive due to rising PG&E rates.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

California Assembly Member Phil Ting drives a Tesla Model Y, and the car company’s phone app estimates he saved about $1,772 last year by not buying gas. The San Francisco Democrat doesn’t expect to make the same savings this year, but he is a big proponent of electrification and likes his electric car.

“To me, it’s not groundbreaking right now,” Ting said. “But the total electricity price is a big problem this year.”

Los Altos Hills resident Barry Smith, an early adopter of electric vehicles, said he has noticed his PG&E bill is much higher this year.

“The big financial benefit was the fuel savings: the more you drove, the greater the savings,” said Smith. “If there are not so many savings, people will wait.”

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A PG&E spokesperson emphasized that it still costs less to charge a car battery than it does to buy gasoline, especially for drivers enrolled in the special EV rate plans.

The utility’s flagship EV pricing plans, available during off-peak hours from midnight to noon, allow drivers to charge their cars at home for the equivalent of about $3.23 to $3.29 per gallon of gasoline, PG&E said. That’s lower than the average price of $4.80 for a gallon of gasoline in California as of Monday, as reported by AAA.

But PG&E said only about 25% of electric vehicle drivers have signed up for a rate plan designed for home charging customers. A company spokesperson said they are trying to identify customers with electric vehicles to raise awareness of the rates.

Ball, the engineer from Walnut Creek, said he just heard about the electric vehicle pricing plan and is considering signing up.

Austin Ball's Tesla, purchased in 2020, shows charge status on the internal display at his Walnut Creek home, as seen on March 4.  Ball recently heard about PG&E's off-peak charging plan aimed at EV drivers and is considering signing up.

Austin Ball’s Tesla, purchased in 2020, shows charge status on the internal display at his Walnut Creek home, as seen on March 4. Ball recently heard about PG&E’s off-peak charging plan aimed at EV drivers and is considering signing up.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle

Ball started comparing fuel costs with friends when he first bought his electric car about four years ago, and said his savings were impressive. But when he did the same thing with a friend on a weekend getaway to Pismo Beach in February, it turned out that Ball had only paid slightly less after traveling similar distances.

“It was about a ten dollar difference – nothing to brag about,” Ball said.

Reach Julie Johnson: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @juliejohnson and Emma Stiefel: emma.stiefel@sfchronicle.com

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