The Farce that is the Electric Car Subsidy Game

Baby you can drive my car. No it won’t go too far. Baby it needs a charge. The taxpayers will love you.  Beep beep, beep beep,  yeah.

Does anyone really want to go to Madison? I mean, other than President Barack Obama desperately seeking a friendly audience.  Given the subsidies to travel there, you would think Madison as an inhospitable destination like the Gobi Desert.

Or Detroit.

First the Obama Administration and Governor Jim Doyle want to build a somewhat-higher-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison for $810 million, or more given the tendency of these projects to cost more than planned. That $810 million also does not include the costs of building the train stations or the operating costs.

Now they want to subsidize the ride for electric car drivers. The Madison Gas & Electric Company received a $5.5 million grant from the federal stimulus law to test how people will drive and re-charge their electric cars, including setting up 18 additional ChargePoint charging stations. Under the three-year pilot program, drivers of electric vehicles will be able to charge their vehicles at the charging stations for free.

So if I owned an electric car and decided to drive from Waukesha to the MacIver Institute’s offices across the street from the Capitol, I could have my trip subsidized by the electricity ratepayers in Madison. Unfortunately the Chevrolet Volt’s battery won’t get me there, so I’ll be driving a Nissan Leaf. I’ll look really cool and environmentally responsible in my brand new foreign car, and the taxpayers helped me pay for it with a $7,500 subsidy.

It will have to be a new car with a new battery, and hopefully the weather won’t be too cold. Otherwise the not-quite 100-mile battery might not make it, especially because I like to listen to conservative talk radio and have the heat on when it’s cold. My kids like to charge their Nintendo DS games in the car, but we’ll assume I didn’t take them along on this trip. Add lights and windshield wipers and there might be an unscheduled stop on the freeway.

Of course, my new car will be the result of far more than just $7,500 in federal subsidies. Just in the federal stimulus law alone there was $2.4 billion for electric-car component factories. Batteries are the biggest price concern, and the federal government is hoping that sinking billions into stimulating production will lower the battery cost, thereby lowering the cost of the car.

But I will look really cool when I link my i-Pod to the car stereo. I’ll just keep the volume down so I don’t drain the battery too much.

In Madison I’ll pull up to the charging station, provided by Coulomb Technologies who received a $15 million federal stimulus grant to distribute the charging stations, and park for a few hours. It will take a few hours for the car to charge properly for the return trip. On the other hand, maybe I can get Madison Gas and Energy to pay for my parking, too. Woo hoo! I’m really coming out ahead now.

Some critics will wonder at this point why I did not take the (federal, state and local subsidized) bus from the charging station. If I had wanted to take a bus, I would have taken the Badger Bus in the first place. (Of course that would entail a cab or bus ride from the drop-off to the office, too),

And no, I won’t ride my bicycle either on the neat bicycle lanes of Madison–despite my love of urban biking. The weight of the optional bike rack and the bike would have shortened the range of my environmentally-friendly electric car.

While at the offices I’ll get some work done when ding! I’ll get a text message on my cell phone telling me my car is done, er, charged. Because I’m a courteous conservative, I’ll have to ask someone to take me back over to my car so I can empty the charging station for the next status-seeking yuppie in an electric vehicle. Then back to the offices to finish my work fighting for free markets before I head back to Waukesha in my coal-powered car.

Coal-powered? Well, yes, most electricity in Wisconsin is generated by coal, 62.5% in 2009. If not coal, then we get electricity from nuclear power, 20.7%, and natural gas, 9.1%. There is a little electricity generated by solar and wind power, and how many wind mills are we going to build to power Wisconsin’s 5.3 million cars (as of 2007)?

Adding to the moral dilemma for the environmentally conscious are the precious metals needed for the electric vehicle components, especially for the battery. Lithium does not come from recycling aluminum cans.

But then this isn’t about the morality of driving a green car as much as it is looking like a moral environmentally conscious consumer. According to Deloitte Consulting, the likely early adopters of electric vehicles are those that have an average household income above $200,000 and drive less than 100 miles per week. These are not people that we normally think of when we think of federal, state and local subsidies for transportation. These are people that are the targets of promises to raise the taxes on the “rich.”

I wonder how the poorer electricity ratepayers in Madison feel about subsidizing the electricity of the rich. Such is the price we pay when we want to make everyone look good.

In the meantime, can someone give me a lift? I accidentally turned my rear defrost on.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for MacIver Institute