Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Paying the Bill for Electric Vehicles

Perhaps it's merely a sign of the times, when a billion is the new million and firms in many industries have found it easier to get capital from the government than from bankers, bondholders and shareholders, but the price tag implicit in the recommendations of a new cross-industry group formed to promote electric vehicles is startling even in this context. Although I couldn't find the total anywhere in the lengthy report from the Electrification Coalition, the Washington Post tallied the combined cost of their proposals at $124 billion in new government incentives, over and above the billions already being spent under the stimulus bill and other programs to support the R&D, manufacturing, and infrastructure for plug-in electric cars, and to subsidize consumer purchases of them. The frustrating part of this is that I'm in general agreement that electric vehicles probably represent the long-term future of cars. However, I don't believe anyone can know this with sufficient certainty, any more than they knew a few years ago that fuel cell cars were the answer, or in the late 1990s that diesel hybrids were the answer. The report also raises basic questions about how new industries should be built, and at whose expense.

Without dissecting the entire document, the justification for its recommendations appears to hinge on a few key arguments concerning our current use of oil, which the Coalition is hardly alone in regarding as excessive. Although they go a bit overboard focusing on the $900 billion Americans spent on petroleum products last year--roughly half of which represented the value of domestic production, refining margins, and federal, state and local taxes collected on product sales, all of which are part of GDP and thus a plus, not a minus for the economy--they eventually get around to mentioning last year's oil import tab of $388 billion. (That figure is currently running at around $250 billion per year, based on the September refiner acquisition price applied to our average monthly net imports, but it is still a lot of money.) Yet as attention-focusing as that sum is, vehicle electrification is hardly the only way to go about reducing it, and from what I can tell it is almost certainly not the most cost-effective means of doing so.

Aside from the diesel options I discussed the other day, there are a variety of strategies available to improve fuel economy significantly without merely shifting our transportation energy consumption from one category (oil) to another (electricity generated from a mix anchored by coal.) Our approach to reducing oil consumption must also take into account the diminishing returns to increasing fuel economy. Doubling the average car's fuel economy from 25 mpg to 50 mpg saves twice as much gasoline as going from 50 mpg to 100 mpg--and it still saves more than achieving the fancifully hyperbolic mpgs we've seen quoted for various plug-ins and EVs that ignore the energy required to generate grid electricity. The avoided fuel cost effectively sets a ceiling on the financial rewards available from the notional fuel economy of grid-based vehicles. Because fuel savings can't justify today's high up-front cost of battery-powered cars, the Coalition proposes consumer tax credits for plug-in hybrids or EVs that could top $10,000, compared to the current $7,500 maximum. By comparison, for ten grand you could fuel a Prius for 100,000 miles at $5/gallon, or a pair of them at current gas prices.

Nor do I find the suggestion of providing federal tax credits to cover 75% of the cost of EV-recharging infrastructure (50% in later phases) appealing, other than as a gift to the member companies of the Coalition that paid for this study. Infrastructure is an expensive investment, and I'm quite familiar from my experience of the EV-1 rollout with its importance in breaking the chicken-and-egg market dynamic associated with battery cars. However, I don't see sufficient justification for taxpayers to pick up this much of the tab--and risk--for infrastructure for which the demand will be so small and uncertain for years to come.

Even measured against the scale of the bailouts of GM, Chrysler, and the big banks, $124 billion is a huge price tag to impose on taxpayers who have just begun to wake up to the likely consequences of the enormous debts that our deficits are piling up. While vehicle electrification might reduce our trade deficit in oil, it's not obvious that it won't replace it with offsetting deficits in cars, batteries and the scarce strategic materials they require. Nor does it seem equitable to ask average taxpayers to furnish other, perhaps higher-quintile taxpayers with EV tax credits so generous that they would exceed the depreciated value of the average car on the road.

I'm not opposed to electrification or the companies behind this initiative. In fact, I wish them well and look forward to someday having the choice of buying an attractive and affordable electric car. What I do oppose is another massive handout to another chosen industry on the basis of a highly uncertain scenario of future market development, bypassing all of the competitive pressures that should shape such a revolutionary change along the way. The first few million grid-powered EVs would have a negligible impact on the nation's energy consumption, emissions, and oil imports, yet even their advocates suggest they will cost a bloody fortune to put on the road. As you read the Coalition's analysis and their proposals for who should foot the bill for all this, I encourage you to consider who stands to benefit the most from it in the next ten years. Taxpayers should insist that the early adopters and the companies that will garner most of the value of these developments pay their own way, as was the case for personal computers, cellphones, and most other successful new technologies of the last several decades.

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