Tesla's charging

On a normal day, charging a Tesla Model S would cost between $2 and $15 to charge from empty.

This story has been updated with additional comments from ChargePoint CEO Pat Romano.

Charging up the long-range version of the Tesla Model S, with its 100 kilowatt-hour battery, runs less than $15 in most parts of the country and, using special off-peak rates, as little as $2 to $3. However, the winter storm that slammed Texas this week created a major power shortage in its wake, and some reports warn that charging a Model S could surge as high as $900.

The truth is not so simple. Yes, in parts of Texas, some utilities are spending nearly 40 times more than normal to purchase emergency energy supplies, so it could — in theory — cost as much as $900 to recharge a drained Tesla battery.

The good news for EV owners is that despite rolling blackouts and other headaches, they’ll likely pay little to no more for power to run lights, heat, TVs — or charge EVs — than they did before the storm. It’s shortsighted utility companies set to swallow the extra costs. For now, anyway.

Texas is a mess as another storm could be coming

What’s clear is Texas is a mess right now. The storm resulted in sub-freezing, even sub-zero, temperatures in much of the state. In many areas, utilities are cutting power in rolling blackouts. Homes are losing lights and heat, that has some pipes freezing and bursting.Musk ERCOT tweet Feb 2021

And utility companies are making emergency negotiations for outside supplies of power, paying as much as $9,000 a megawatt-hour, compared to a normal figure of around $25. Even without the normal markup that would work out to an astounding $9 a kilowatt compared with a national norm of around 13 cents.

Further, there is expected to be a ongoing shortage of 10 gigawatts of power – enough power to allow Marty McFly to travel back and forth to the future eight times in his time-traveling DeLorean.

“We are dealing with higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units,” said ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of energy on the grid serving 90% of Texas residents – more than 26 million people.

Pointing Fingers

Those wind turbines provide roughly 25% of ERCOT’s energy supply under more ideal conditions. That’s more than coal and second only to the 45% of power generated by natural gas-fueled plants.

Southwest Freeway in Houston

Winter storms that hit Texas have virtually shut the state down, leaving many without power.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott have led a chorus of critics — almost all Conservative Republicans traditionally opposed to renewable energy — pointing fingers at wind and solar while ignoring the fact that the state’s backup sources for electricity have also been failing. Now, they’re telling tall tales about how battery-electric vehicles are also part of the problem.

In fact, 80 to 90% of BEVs charge at home, according to industry data, and the vast majority do so at night when demand on the grid is normally at a minimum. With lots of excess capacity, utilities want to sell off-peak energy at almost any price, said Pat Romano, CEO of public charging company ChargePoint, in an interview last year. In some cases, that can be for as little as 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“ChargePoint continues to monitor the situation in Texas and remains available for drivers and station owners that need assistance,” Romano said in a statement to TheDetroitBureau.com. “ChargePoint enables station owners to set pricing for charging at their stations. To date, we have not received reports of widespread price gouging on the network in Texas and we continue to monitor.

“In areas where power is lost, stations will be unavailable to deliver a charge, however drivers can use the ChargePoint mobile app to check real-time status and determine whether a station is on or offline before making the trip. If a station is offline, the associated pin in the app will appear gray as opposed to green (for available) or blue (for in-use).”

That would work out to as little as $2 to recharge a fully drained Tesla Model S long-range, though the figure would still be around $13 at conventional rates, a long way from the scary $900 figure. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, never one to shy away from offering up an opinion, took to Twitter, offering “@ERCOT_ISO is not earning that R.”

What’s true is utilities operating under ERCOT could pay that much for power on a short-term basis. Under the arcane rules of a largely deregulated system in the state, it is a case of buyer beware for utilities running low, while those with an excess can relish the feast.

A bright spot amidst the dark storm clouds

Texas regulators and lawmakers have long blocked new rules and laws that would reform ERCOT and beef up the Texas electric grid, one reason those in power appear to be playing a game of finger-pointing. Whether the crisis will lead to change is unclear.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, left, seemed pleased with Tesla last year when the EV maker chose the state for its new gigafactory.

For consumers caught in the dark, there is one bright side. There is no way a provider can pass on the higher costs for electricity, a senior charging company executive told TheDetroitBureau.com on background, asking not to get in the middle of the highly politicized story.

In one of the many quirks of the Texas power system, consumers have no single utility that can be defaulted to. They must pick a power provider, sometimes signing contracts multiple times a year for service. With rare exception, those agreements set specific rates or a narrow range in which the cost of power can slide up or down. No consumer will be paying $9 a kWh, though business users might find they can be hit a little harder.

As for BEV owners who use public facilities, the companies willing to talk on background told us they had no plan to raise rates beyond normal levels, even if they have to absorb some higher costs.

Blown out of proportion

The one concern, an official said, is that the rolling blackouts have, at least temporarily disabled a number of Texas charging stations. Eventually, the various energy companies now being hammered in Texas could seek to recover their hefty losses by raising rates, but the one plus is that competition may limit how hard consumers and businesses get hit.

So, at least for now, those reports of surging prices for EV charging “have been blown out of proportion,” said Joost de Vries, vice president of Global Sales and Customer Experience for California-based EV manufacturer Karma.

Several others in the industry who TheDetroitBureau.com spoke to questioned why the Texas grid has faced so much trouble despite the severity of the storms that struck this week. And Karma’s de Vries noted that other locations, including Norway, have far less trouble managing to keep the wind turbines spinning, the lights on and EVs charged up whatever the weather.

ERCOT officials have so far failed to follow up on repeated requests for comment.

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