The Economics of EV Charging Stations

I live in the northern end of the Silicon Valley and here EVs and Plug-in hybrids are everywhere. From Tesla P85s to C-Max Energis – it’s what the cool kids drive. As the minority academic economist in this nerdster crowd, I am always on the lookout for potential sources of inefficiency and how to get rid of them. The most sobering realization I had after purchasing my shiny new ride is the dearth of charging stations. When I find a spot to charge, I am usually shocked by the prices charged for electricity. One example of this inefficiency can be found at UC Berkeley: We have 1 (!) charger for a university community of 40,000+. What really makes my economic brain cells short circuit is that if you can get the spot, electricity is free (!!).

ev charging station
Given the proximity of the charger to the engineering department, I initially thought this was probably one of the very first EV chargers in California and it is lacking a meter. Surely no one else would be giving away a valuable resource for free. Wrong. I made the fateful mistake of logging onto the Chargepoint site and checking pricing for their network of EV stations in the Bay Area (their charging stations are owned by individuals/firms – they just provide billing and IT infrastructure). Turns out the vast majority of EV chargers in the Bay Area — please start breathing into a paper bag now — provide drivers with free, zero cents per kWh, FREE electricity! I found a few charging stations, which charge a fixed fee (in most cases $0.99) and no variable rate as well as a few stations, which charge $0.49 per kWh.

The giant hippie heart beating in my chest is trying to convince my neoclassical brain that we need free charging in order to incentivize the rollout of this technology! Would you like free electrons with your $7500 federal tax credit plus state subsidies? Well who doesn’t? Hook me up! While this might make some sense in the early days of rolling out a new technology, this cannot be the long run equilibrium.

ev cars
And we are moving out of the cocoon stage into a world where EVs and Plugins are everywhere and need power. A sign of this is an email I got from Chargepoint a few weeks ago stating:

“PG&E has sent a proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to use your money to own and operate new EV charging stations in your neighborhood. This extension of PG&E’s monopoly will destroy the competitive charging station market and stall the innovation of new features and technologies.”

This gave me food for thought. Those of us living in single-family homes charge our vehicles at home, where we pay the typical inefficient tier based rates (at my house you also have an option for two types of EV rates, but one is pretty expensive and the other requires installation of a second meter which can cost thousands of dollars). All of these are certainly greater than 0 cents per kWh (usually between 20 and 40 cents per kWh). We have our own outlets, or fancy-schmancy quick charging stations, right in our driveways where we can show off our greenness to our not-so-green neighbors.

Well who needs more charging stations? Two types of people. Folks living in a multifamily housing situation and people who need juice during the day (while parked at work or out and about). This group of individuals is not out looking for free electricity, but I would conjecture that they are simply looking for access to an EV plug in many locations. There are about the same number of public charging stations in my town as there are Starbucks. For a successful rollout of EVs, this density has to increase very rapidly.

So I will follow my friend Catherine Wolfram’s new blogging strategy and ask – why should I sign this petition by Chargepoint? More charging stations in my neighborhood, regardless of whether they are operated by my utility or not, strike me as a good thing from a consumer point of view. The proposal does not kick the Chargepoints of the world out of the EV charging business. Yes, the utility is a monopoly. But it is a regulated monopoly. It does not get to charge the markup the textbook monopolist charges. Come join me in my Econ 100 classroom one day and I’ll explain this to you.

Yes, a regulated utility does not have the same strong incentives to innovate – in theory – as a successful startup, which operates the largest network of charging stations in the country. But so what? The technology is pretty simple. A plug hooked up to a 240V outlet and a parking space with a card reader so you can charge me for the electricity I am using. This is an example where supply of charging stations might really drive demand for a technology.

The question that arises of course is what should the price of electricity be at these charging stations? I would argue that the price should be the real time price of electricity with potentially a fixed fee per charge, which accounts for the provision and maintenance of the charging station. If you really need a charge on the hottest day of the year and the price is really high, you’ll pay more. Or you can wait a few hours until it cools down and have an ice cream. If that does not pass hearings, then I would at least hope for a time-of-use rate structure. It’s a brave new world and I hope one in which we will charge for electricity – correctly. Or we might as well start giving gasoline away for free as well.

About Maximilian Auffhammer

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.
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43 Responses to The Economics of EV Charging Stations

  1. Rick French says:

    Then again, you could own a Tesla and get free charging on highways all across America.

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      I am afraid I can’t afford one 😉

      • Teresa says:

        We own a Tesla. Yes, it is great to have free charging. But here’s the pickle. Even the Tesla charging stations are crowded. The Tesla has become too popular. So expect to wait in line just to get a charge.

        For me, convenience is king. I would rather have more FAST charging stations by anyone (ex. chargepoint, utilities, individuals, LLCs…) available so that it is convenient. I don’t mind paying for the comfort of knowing that I can get a charge any time and any place. It is the freedom to travel without having to dread that you will run out of a charge in the middle of nowhere.

        In 2017, Tesla and GM are coming out with the Model 3 and the Bolt, respectively. These vehicles will be able to drive 200 miles on a single charge. The price of these vehicles about $30,000.

        I think that the demand for quick charging stations will soar because there is a growing NEED. This need will only continue to grow as the electric battery RANGE increases and the purchase price goes down. Because of the 200 mile range and the $30,000 price tag, I believe we are on the verge of a tipping point – an electric car revolution, so-to-speak.

        I don’t like that PG&E is using our money to make a profit. I don’t have a problem with them making money, just not on my dime.

        I would like to talk to you about setting up an electric charging station. Would you be open to talking to me.

        Teresa 🙂

  2. Andrew Benson says:

    PGE will “use your money to own and operate new EV charging stations in your neighborhood”??? Oh wow, that’s a really devious business model. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any other business recovering the cost of its investments with revenue provided by its customers. Wow, PG&E is so evil! How dare it expect a return on its investment! Thank goodness we have consumer-friendly Chargepoint who use their own money to give their service away to customers for free. Thanks, Chargepoint! /sarcasm

    You shouldn’t sign the petition. Chargepoint is quite transparently attempting to use the CPUC’s regulatory power to exclude PG&E from competing with Chargepoint. It is using PG&E’s status of the monopoly provider of transmission & distribution as bogeyman. There’s no reason why you can’t have a competitive market in electric vehicle charging, and PG&E should be allowed to participate. The only requirements on PG&E should be (A) that it provide fair access to other EV charging market participants who need to connect to their electric distribution system, and (B) that the cost of PG&E charging stations be solely recovered through rates paid by EV drivers using their stations.

    • mcubedecon says:

      This post actually has two strands: 1) Is offering free electricity to EVs a good thing? and 2) Should PG&E be able to offer this service from its regulated company? There’s lots of work done and being on the first question, so I’ll turn to the second one. I also notice several people who are potentially influential to the PG&E decision are on this thread.

      If we look at this from a static standpoint, well, what could be the difference between a competitive or regulated firm offering EV charging service? On a risk adjusted basis they will generate the same amount of net profits and the costs should be about the same. But we don’t live in a static world. In fact we are in the midst of multi-factor acceleration of technological innovation in the electricity world, much of it well documented on this blog.

      So the question is what is the difference in “dynamic” aspects? Our history says that economically-regulated companies are slower to adopt new technologies, or to block the entry of competitive technologies. Think of AT&T fighting customer ownership of phones. I wrote here about how the telecom revolution progressed through regulatory changes: Similarly, gas-fired combined cycle power plants were available in the early 1990s with huge efficiency gains for steam turbines, but CCGTs weren’t built in large numbers until unregulated merchant generators could enter the market. Restructuring taught us much about the relative merits of innovation under different regimes. I wrote about that here:

      Turning back to innovation in EV charging, we face the same dilemma. The fact is that charging technology is more complex than Max notes here, the most important issues probably being “fast” charging and provision of ancillary services to better integrate other distributed energy resources. A regulated utility has a strong incentive to either protect its investment against other innovations, e.g., hydrogen fuels, or to overinvest in infrastructure to generate the largest absolute return to shareholders. Until we are willing to have utility shareholders face real risks, they won’t have real incentives to innovate. And this has implications for how we should move forward in the world of Grid 2.0, which I’ve written about here:

  3. Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA says:

    If charging is free, it turns electricity from a “scarce resource” (otherwise why is there so much talk about managing, or more precisely rationing, demand?) into an entitlement much like our expectation that public places will have free wi-fi.

    Regarding Chargepoint’s petition, I’ve heard their absurd argument in other contexts. If PG&E runs charging stations as a regulated enterprise, it might force competitors who need higher prices out of the market, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (it’s also a risk competitive firms take when they enter a business where regulators can and often do change the rules with the stroke of a pen). If PG&E runs charging stations as a competitive undertaking, there’s little to be concerned about since PG&E’s track record in competitive businesses is abysmal.

    Your suggestion that electric charging be based on real-time energy prices is eminently sensible, which is why it wont happen. Politicians and EV advocates will find all kinds of reasons to do something different…and much less efficient.

  4. Tam Hunt says:

    Max, interestingly there is good data showing that free charging of EVs is more than made up for with the grid benefits of smart charging (allowing the grid operator to turn charging on or off as required to stabilize the grid), but customers would have to officially sign up for smart charging to realize that benefit. This is being discussed currently at the CPUC. In terms of PG&E’s EV charging station proposal my client, the Green Power Institute, has submitted comments supportive of the proposal but requesting that the CPUC require PG&E to build the infrastructure for said chargers but allow third parties to own the chargers. This is the model that SCE is pursuing with their similar proposal and it strikes a good balance between getting the needed chargers deployed but not squelching the third party market in favor of more profits for the incumbent utility.

  5. pasadenapdx says:

    Here’s another approach: App available for smart phones.

    One additional problem that needs to be solved: liquid fuel vehicles that illegally park in spaces reserved for electric vehicles.

  6. Excellent piece. EVs receive massive subsidies even when it is uncertain if they reduce climate gas emissions. One of my MSc students is currently checking to see if EVs replace conventional cars (making it more likely that GHG emissions are reduced) or are primarily driven in the city substituting for public transportation (which may make GHG emissions increase). His thesis is due in mid-May.

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      looking forward to the findings!

    • 42apples says:

      But they might not be better replacing conventional cars either, especially in cold climates (40%+ less efficient while gas cars while gas cars are almost as good since they use waste heat). Life cycle energy in EVs is quite high as well. Also if the marginal generation source when they are getting charged is coal or oil, the emissions are quite high as well. What I’ve heard is that EVs are better from a GHG and most emissions standpoint in the West, but really bad in the midwest.

  7. Paco D'Exponere says:

    Max, et al,

    Should we truly expect efficient pricing for charging services when we cannot even get efficient ratemaking for residential electricity service? Clearly the social cost of inefficient pricing in residential electricity service is far greater than what will result from inefficient pricing for a small segment such as EV charging. Approaching this as an economist, one could claim that the cost of heavy intellectual lifting would better benefit society if applied to the bigger problem. But the streets are not littered with the bodies of nerds willing to fight over efficient residential electricity ratemaking. And since transportation is a basis of the California culture perhaps this issue can garner sufficient attention on the broader issue of efficient ratemaking. All we can hope is that there is sufficient spillover from the EV charging dialogue to move residential ratemaking in a more efficient direction.



    • Sy Goldstone says:

      This raises a question about what is the efficient “time of use” marginal cost rate for EV’s. For off peak ( night time) wouldn’t this currently be on the order of 3 to 5 cents per Kwh versus the the much higher residential rates that are now being used ?

  8. janjandesailorman says:

    Nice post Max, but part of it has me confused. You say “at my house you also have an option for two types of EV rates, but one is pretty expensive and the other requires installation of a second meter which can cost thousands of dollars). All of these are certainly greater than 0 cents per kWh (usually between 20 and 40 cents per kWh).”

    But according to the tariffs at both EV-A (single meter applies to entire property) and EV-B (separate meter, applies only to EV and you choose another rate for the rest of your load) have summer/winter on-peak rates of 43/29 cents/kWh; partial peak rates of 22/17 cents/kWh; but off-peak rates of only 10 cents per kWh (summer almost identical to winter). Off-peak is 11PM to 7AM which is generally plenty of time to recharge your vehicle.

    I managed to reduce my on-peak usage so much that according to the handy MyEnergy website I would actually save money by switching to the EV-A rate even before I take delivery of my new Ford Focus EV next month (dock and other strikes excepted). And there is even a pilot program administered by the CPUC that gives you a FREE (there’s that word again) level 2 charger that is wi-fi enabled and acts as the 2nd meter so you can go on the EV-B rate without paying for that pesky second meter. For details see
    The only catch is the pilot apparently only last 12 months after which you have to go back to a single-meter rate. But if that rate is EV-A and you only charge at night, it still seems like a pretty good deal to me.

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      That really depends on where you live. I have really clamped down on my energy consumption yet the calculator (and my own spreadsheet) still have me lose money on the rate that does not require me to get a second meter. But I live in the hot part of Contra Costa county. I got a quote for a charger and a second meter, and frankly I am going to use that money to take my family on a well deserved very nice vacation. It is nowhere near cost effective (the meter I mean).

  9. art2science says:

    All the stations at UCSD (about 20 last I looked) charge $.49 per kwh. Possibly they are operated by Chargepoint. (On the UCSD campus the marginal cost of generation is below $.10 due to extensive cogen. Usually it’s well below.) Despite the high price, people do use them.

    As for your question about the petition, there is nothing surprising about it and of course you should not sign it. Chargepoint does not want competition. PG&E would be a powerful competitor, so they are using an astro-turf (i.e. fake grass roots) approach to head it off. This is the new normal. Check out the recent talk/paper by Luigi Zingales “Does Finance Benefit Society?” for an eloquent analysis of rent-seeking behavior via lobbying.

    Real-time or at least TOU pricing – definitely. Considering how automated the Chargepoint stations are, it would be very simple. They even display the price in real time; but it’s always $.49.

  10. art2science says:

    Minor correction to my previous comment: Chargepoint as you say provides infrastructure and management of charging stations, and does not own them directly. But in either case PG&E is a threat to its market, since PG&E will undoubtedly set up its own infrastructure.

  11. marcel hawiger says:

    I am curious why you characterize PG&E’s EV rate as “pretty expensive”? Have you compared bill results for different users using the EV rate as compared to standard (E-1) rates? While EV charges $0.42 on peak, it charges $0.22 and 0.09 for partial and off-peak. I would be very curious how tiered rates (with tier 3 at $0.27 and tier 4 at $0.33) compare to the EV rate, for either an “average” user (using about 200% of baseline), or an “above-average” user (most likely if you have an EV). Presumably you could model the same consumption load profile for non-EV use, and add-on EV charging either off-peak or at some other profile.

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      I only checked this for my own consumption profile. There is a calculator on their website which lets you try out different rates for different vehicles. I am sure these rates are beneficial for some folks.

  12. Lenny Goldberg says:

    The problem is that the utility proposal allows them to put charging stations into their rate base, which means they get a guaranteed rate of return on investment–highly anti-competitive! In any case, they will be called on to provide grid support and upgrades with greater electrification of the transport sector, and car-charging prices will need to cover those, as well as reflect time-of-use, as you note. But allowing them to rate-base charging stations would be a huge mistake.

  13. Steven Rudnick says:

    Nice post. Thank you.

  14. Bruce Klafter says:

    Many stations are free or charge a flat fee because the owner/provider runs the risk of being deemed a utility. That situation would seem to put PG&E and other utilities in a position superior to Chargepoint and others because they are already regulated. I agree entirely that EV owners should not have an expectation of unlimited free energy. We need a pricing model that encourages the placement of more stations, that encourages more individuals to purchase vehicles and that discourages people from leaving their vehicles sitting at stations all day long.

  15. Kevin Fingerman says:

    I’ve been looking into this issue in a tangential way, and it seems clear that we’re massively undercharging people for kWh to their EVs if the goal is adoption. This is a net negative-cost technology over time (vs a comparable conventional vehicle), and everyone already knows they’ll save on fuel. The reason we don’t see more EVs is the up-front cost. It’s clearly a political non-starter, but how about taxing electricity to EVs and using the revenues to further subsidize their purchase?

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      Actually, I spend more money driving in EV mode than I do in gasoline mode. This fully depends on the price of electricity and the price of gas.

  16. Paul brooks says:

    I understand that wholesale electrical prices in the middle of the night are far less than during the day. Why not price EV charging stations at a fixed markup over wholesale?

  17. Noel says:

    I sent your blog to some of my colleagues, who would not have responded to the blog and they were of the opinion that you might have ignored some elements in your analysis: (1) More charging stations in your neighborhood does not necessarily make it a good idea for a regulated utility to take on a model that is not a “regulatory function” – As one colleague put it: “If PG&E proposes to buy & install 1,000,000 washing machines, to address the smell on
    BART trains by reducing the “proliferation of dirty clothes”, should the Commission agree?” (2). Secondly, the notion that PG&E is actually interested in putting more charging stations in your neighborhood is misleading if not naïve because PG&E is primarily interested in increasing its rate-base; that being the case, why should PG&E be allowed to kill-off potential competition from NRG and ChargePoint with ratepayer funding; 3) The fact that available charging stations provide the service “free of charge”, does not mean the electricity was free; someone paid for it, retailers like Costco and Wholefoods are using them to attract customers; (4) As for PG&E being a regulated monopoly, “well, the proof’s in the pudding: Does the CPUC regulate PG&E well?” Which ever way you answer the question, there has been a lot in the news lately to make you doubt yourself.

    One colleague did question providing free charging services during peak hours when the electricity system cost would go up, causing everyone to pay a little bit more. Finally, have you looked at PG&E’s EV charging rates? Apparently, off-peak charging is only 10c/kwh, which is not very expensive and might explain a 99cents flat fee for a parking space one is not likely to occupy for more than 3 hours.

  18. 42apples says:

    Like others have said, I think the problem is the way they are funding the charging stations. They should be recovering the cost of the stations in a fixed price for charging, not by raising prices for all ratepayers. How is their proposal any more fair for non-EV owners than net metering is for non-solar customers?

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      I think I am sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, are there subsidies the current operators and owners of charging stations receive? If noone receives subsidies, you are probably right. If not, the story becomes more complex.

  19. BMan says:

    Given the inventory of charging stations that you describe, I think your suggested pricing strategy is off the mark. Charging-station congestion is probably the biggest opportunity cost that drivers face. A simple parking meter may be the best strategy for now — pay by the hour for occupying the space, whether you are pulling juice or not. Once there are sufficient stations, it will make sense to start metering the juice.

    • Maximilian Auffhammer says:

      I like this idea a lot. If you have scarce charging stations you should charge for electricity and space! That reminds me, I should probably move my car out Berkeley’s sole charging spot 😉

  20. Michael Colvin says:

    I think that a potential concern is that the utility can use its monopoly power undercut the competition or to manipulate the market. Investor Owned Utilities have affiliate transaction rules and it is not clear to me why the PG&E proposal should be in the regulated business and not a spin off affiliate.

  21. Michelle Pierce says:

    As a nerd EV driver I would like to add a real world perspective on this topic. My favorite mall in Riverside has free Clipper Creek chargers as shown in the pictures in your blog. While plugged in and getting free electricity, I spend way more money in goods, services, food and entertainment than the total cost to charge my car. The Galleria at Tyler knows how to attract nerd customers.

    • art2science says:

      Like free Wi-Fi in restaurants, on steroids. What is your car’s max charge rate? If it’s 1KW, then this costs them less than $.30 per hour, plus it makes you more likely to use their mall next time.

  22. art2science says:

    Max, has anyone looked at the effects of a proposed California 50% renewables generation mandate? From the one study I’ve seen, it appears that rates would go way down during sunny days. (This assumes very high PV use.) In fact I bet they could be negative for brief periods when ramp constraints are active. EV charging, if the rates are real time, could be a great complement to PV penetration. But “someone” would need to install a lot of at-work charging stations to increase penetration of daytime charging.
    Topsy-Turvy, admittedly.

  23. Brad Webb says:

    Enjoyed reading your article. You may be interested in following Assembly Bill 1005. The bill is available on

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  25. James Roumasset says:

    “The question that arises of course is what should the price of electricity be at these charging stations? I would argue that the price should be the real time price of electricity with potentially a fixed fee per charge, which accounts for the provision and maintenance of the charging station.?”
    If by “real time price” you mean marginal cost, you would need to bump up your “fixed fee per charge” to account for Brother Borenstein’s fixed cost of electricity generation and transmission.
    P.S. You say “hippie,” man? Ain’t been no hippies ’round here for centuries. You been freeze-dried or doin’ hard time? — Stitch Jones

  26. Charge Spot says:

    Telsa brining new model that could run 200 miles with one; charge then it would be great to buy Telsa new electric model rather then shelling out money on patrol or diesel cars.of other brands. And a little bit contribution to set our environment free from smoke and pollution raise by ordinary patrol cars. But Charging at charging station must be free or at a fixed price without any monopoly.

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