In on-trend California you’ll find 10% of the entire world’s EVs but to achieve their ambitious target of putting 5-million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2030 they require subsidies. However, a new report for the US National Bureau of Economic Research, finds the subsidies just save rich people money and don’t drive the volume required from average consumers. In addition, by 2025, the scheme will have cost at least 5x more than forecast. So what to do? According to Maximilian Auffhammer, Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley, the answer lies in a national carbon tax.
When I envision the future in the Age of Aquarius, it lacks sound. Panther-like EVs, powered by Zen-monastery-quiet solar PV, are zipping down highways made from recycled tires. The thunderous sound of the combustion engine will only exist in the memory of petrol-heads like myself. But in order to get there, people must want to and be able to buy these cool cars. When I teach my Evening/Weekend MBAs, we discuss the demand for new and socially desirable technologies and how one “pushes” new gadgets into the markets. The answer to this, in many cases, is you subsidize new technologies. A subsidy (duh) makes the product cheaper to the consumer and they are more likely to buy the EV.
In California, we’re super ambitious. We all eat kale. We also want to see 1.5 million Zero Emission Vehicles on California’s streets by 2025. And 5 million by 2030. That’s 6 and 11 years out, respectively. So we’re going to throw some money at the problem. Our schools and roads are falling apart, so the question we should be asking is, how much is it going to take to get these cars on the road and is it the best use of public funds? There are some older reports out there that use the early EV subsidies to estimate consumers’ response to these programs, but to put it bluntly, these subsidies largely went to rich people buying Teslas. Until now, we knew relatively little about the response of people buying non-ridiculously expensive cars.
Enter Dave Rapson and Erich Muehlegger of UC Davis and frequent visitors to the Energy Institute. During the busy holiday season they published a working paper that fills this important gap. They study the impacts of the Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program (“EFMP”), which is a California retire-and-replace subsidy program for EV purchases. The design of the EFMP program provides clean quasi-experimental variation in the availability of the subsidy to some buyers and not others. This is nerd speak for: “Woah. Cool statistics. Let me Scotch tape my broken glasses together and read on.” In short, this paper is causal, not casual.
Another cool part of the program is that eligibility is means-tested, which targets subsidies at low- and middle-income buyers. This has never been done before.
Rate of subsidy “pass through”
Due to a jealousy-inducing dataset– the universe of electric vehicle sales in California, which accounts for 40 percent of EV purchases in the United States and 10 percent of purchases worldwide – they are able to estimate two policy-relevant parameters: the rate of subsidy pass-through and the elasticity of demand for EVs among low- to middle-income buyers. The first thing tells us something about how much of the subsidy goes to consumers (versus manufacturers). They show this to be at 80 to 100 percent, which is good. Their estimated demand elasticity – the second thing – is -3.9, implying that a subsidy that decreases the purchase price of an EV by 1 percent will increase demand for that EV by 3.9 percent! This seems like a big number – and it is. The same number for electricity is about -0.3 – an order of magnitude smaller.
Getting 1.5 million EVs on California roads [by 2025] would require subsidies of $9-14 billion!
So, “where’s the problem?” you ask. Frankly, the number of EVs sold, even in California, is relatively small. One prior “study” puts the cost of subsidies out to 2025 at between $2.2-2.9 billion. Muehlegger and Rapson’s estimates suggest that getting 1.5 million EVs on California roads would require subsidies of $9-14 billion! The authors carefully describe the limitations and assumptions of their study, but on scrutinizing the paper closely you realize the subsidy number may actually be much bigger than they state.
So what are the options here? Should the California taxpayer foot the entire bill? Everybody loves a subsidy. Consumers like them! Manufacturers like them! Politicians like them (because consumers like them)! But the money has to come from somewhere. One avenue to protect California taxpayers is to hope for a continuation or expansion of the federal tax credit for EVs, but that is not likely in the current environment.
Feebate good, carbon tax better, both?…perfect
The smarter idea is a feebate; a system of charges and rebates. The idea is simple. If you buy some ridiculous SUV that is big enough to take your entire house in the glove compartment, and which gets terrible gas mileage, you pay a tax. A gas guzzler tax. And that tax should be significant. If you buy the Toyota Kumbaya (the obvious name for the successor to the Prius), you get a hefty subsidy, which is financed out of the revenue from the gas guzzlers. If you want a gas guzzler badly enough, you can have it. But you pay the full damage it does. It’s fair, efficient and economists don’t hate it. Which is probably why it’s not policy. So why do we not love it? It still misses a link to usage, which a carbon tax does not. So yes, I am going to conclude with a call for a national carbon tax. Maybe we should call it the Kumbaya tax.
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the Energy Institute, part of 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. His article first appeared on the Energy Institute blog, published here with permission.