The Cost of Being Eco: Driving Sustainably

6 min •
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We all know that we need to do more to help the planet, which is why it is sometimes a little embarrassing to look out to the driveway at our petrol-guzzling cars. It’s lucky then, that electric cars are more affordable than ever and there are a host of other ways to make driving more sustainable for your finances and the planet.

So what does it actually cost to drive more sustainably?

Should I buy a new electric car?

It has now been a decade since the Nissan Leaf, the first mainstream electric car, was launched in the UK, and as the technology has improved, the prices have fallen. Today, an electric vehicle (EV) is a serious option if you’re looking for a new car.

At the moment, the general rule of thumb is that electric vehicles are slightly more expensive up front than equivalent petrol cars in their category.

For example, the Vauxhall Corsa-e, an electric version of the classic Corsa, starts at £21,485 (after the government’s plug-in grant, which reduces the sticker price by £2,500, has been applied by the dealer). This is pricier than the regular petrol Corsa at £15,485. The same is true at the premium end of the market. The Tesla Model 3 starts at around £42,500, compared to the BMW 3 series starting at £29,900.

But this isn’t the full story. If you take into account fuel costs, after a few years of usage you may find that going electric has saved you money in the long run.

What about second-hand?

There’s also a growing second-hand market for electric vehicles. Prices vary depending on conditions, but a glance at Autotrader reveals that you can pick up a first generation Nissan Leaf, from 2012 or 2013 for as little as £4,000.

An older EV could still be a great vehicle to own. Because their engines contain fewer parts than petrol cars, they typically require much less maintenance than petrol equivalents. But there is still a trade-off in terms of range. Because over the last decade, range has improved considerably.

For example, the 2014 Leaf can only manage around 80 miles before needing a recharge. This won’t cost you more money, as the same amount of electricity will be used as in higher capacity cars, but it does mean that driving longer distances will take longer as you have to stop to charge. But a second hand EV with limited range could still be a viable option if you’re mostly using your car to commute and drive around your local area.

But how much does it cost to charge?

Electricity is, in almost every circumstance, much cheaper than petrol. For example, according to Zap Map, if you were to drive the 118 miles from London to Bristol in a petrol Nissan Micra, it would cost you around £19. But if you were to drive an electric Renault Zoe? Just £5.95.

Charging en route

What makes this slightly more complicated however, is how EV charging is priced. For example, Gridserve chargers, which can often be found at Motorway Service Stations cost 30p per kWh.

BP Pulse, another common charger brand, starts at 26p per kWh on an AC charger, and goes up to 42p per kWh if you want the convenience of 150W DC chargers, which will charge you up faster.

To make things more complicated, BP, like other charge point operators, offers a discount if you join the Pulse scheme as a member. Or if you pay a monthly £7.85 subscription fee, when you actually plug in you can charge as much as you like for free.

Whether this is worth it depends on how much you drive. According to our back of an envelope calculation, if you were to charge using the faster 150W chargers, a subscription would work out cheaper if you charge more than about 53kWh over the course of a month - that’s roughly equivalent to one full charge of a Tesla Model 3.

Charging at home

But this isn’t the whole story. What’s more important is the cost of charging at home. Unlike petrol cars, when you’re at home, your car will be plugged in. So the cost of charging your car will simply be added to your regular household electricity bill.

Pod Point estimates that a typical electric car, with 60kWh battery and 200 mile range will cost around £9.20 for a full charge at home (though of course you may pay more if your electricity charges have gone up recently). But this will depend on your tariff. If you charge overnight, you may be able to charge up at a cheaper rate. If your home has solar panels, you may even be able to charge up for free.

And charging at home isn’t as daunting as it might sound. Though you can charge your car with a standard three-pin socket, the cost of installing a special 7kW charger in your home is falling.

This is a more high-powered charger than a standard plug, and can reduce how long it takes to charge. For example, a Volkswagen ID3 will take 20 hours to charge from 0 to 100 with a standard 3 pin plug, and just 7 hours with a 7kW charger.

If you want one, EDF Energy will install one for just £549, if you’re eligible for the government’s home charge grant scheme, which will pay for 75% of the costs of installing a home charger, up to a value of £350.

How does the cost of driving an EV compare to a petrol car?

Drawing firm conclusions is hard as there are simply too many variables, such as fluctuating changing electricity/oil prices, different methods of charging that accrue different costs depending on how you use your car, and so on. But there is plenty of evidence that driving an EV can be a very affordable option - and all the signs point towards it getting more affordable as time goes on.

For example, the International Council on Clean Transport compared the total costs of driving a VW Golf over four years, which is available in electric, hybrid, petrol and diesel. It found that in Britain, the cost of going all electric actually works out cheaper than diesel, with the calculated total cost of ownership at just over £27,000, compared to £30,000 or so for the diesel car.

What other changes can I make?

Even if you’re not ready to make the leap to electric, there are still other changes you can make to how you drive your petrol car to drive more efficiently. This is not just good for the environment - it’ll save you money too!

If you accelerate more gently you’ll save fuel, as will driving at a consistent speed. If your car has cruise control, flick the switch when you enter the motorway and relax a little.

It also may be worth slowing down a little if you’re not in a rush. Most cars are at their most fuel efficient when travelling between 55 and 65mph - once you start going faster, fuel starts burning much faster. You should also try to drive at the highest gear possible for the speed you are going, it means you’ll be driving most efficiently, and as a bonus, your engine won’t grumble so much.

And don’t forget to optimise your car before setting off

Make sure your tyres are fully inflated - it only takes two minutes and costs around 50 pence to use the air at any petrol station. And remove anything heavy you don’t need, as unnecessary weight just uses more fuel. If you have a roof rack but nothing to carry, take it off! Roof racks and roof boxes make a huge difference to fuel efficiency, because they not only add weight, but make your car less aerodynamic and increase drag. According to one US study, a roof rack causes a 2% drop in fuel economy, and once you add a box, your economy falls by 11%.

Can you afford not to drive sustainably?

A final point to consider is that if your vehicle doesn’t meet certain emissions requirements, you could actually end up paying more if you regularly drive in the Low Emission Zones and Clean Air Zones that are being introduced across the UK. You can read more about these on our blog.

Zopa calculated that cost for a non-compliant consumer vehicle driving into the London Ultra Low Emission Zone could be up to £375 a month. Given the median payment on our Hire Purchase product each month is £220, you could make a speedy financial saving by upgrading your car.

Ultimately, we all know we need to drive more sustainably. Road transport is responsible for 15% of all global carbon emissions. So any steps we can take make a difference. Whether that’s going electric, or simply taking care of how we drive, it will all add up to a healthier planet.

All prices correct as of 22nd October 2021.

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