Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to wire one-fifth of new parking spaces in New York City for electric vehicles would “force the private sector to build charging stations for a fleet of cars that don’t exist and probably won’t exist for years to come, if ever,” energy analyst Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute writes in today’s New York Post.

The basic problem, Bryce says:

The city can be as “wired and ready” as Bloomberg likes, but he can’t make consumers buy electric cars. More important, he can’t overcome the basic physics that have prevented battery-powered cars from being anything more than a tiny niche player in the global auto industry.

But Bloomberg isn’t the only New York leader with an electric-car fixation. Governor Cuomo’s latest State of the State message featured his own massive state-policy push for plus-in vehicles (PEVs), based largely on the assumption that the main obstacle to greater private take-up of electric cars is a lack of charging stations.

Cuomo’s solution: “$50 million spent over five years, including funding from the New York Power Authority (NYPA), NYSERDA, and tax credits to create a statewide network of 3,000 public and workplace charging stations, and funding primarily from investor-owned utilities for incentives for PEV deployment.”

It’s estimated that only 35,000 PEVs have been sold nationwide, half of them in California. Yet, incredibly, Cuomo’s State of the State projects that “with the adoption of a  supportive set of policies, the number of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) on the road in New York State could increase from less than 3,000 today to 30,000-40,000 in 2018 and one million in 2025.” [emphasis added]

The governor’s faith in a shaky technology isn’t supported by ongoing developments in the real world, where the practical and economic shortcomings of PEVs remain obvious. The state’s last big plunge into directly subsidizing construction of electric cars — a 2009 deal promoted by the Paterson administration — ended up in a dead-end of lawsuits, fortunately before any state or local tax subisides had been spent. Recently, a New York Times columnist kicked up something of a ruckus in the electric-car world when he ran out of juice while test-driving a luxury all-electric Tesla in cold East Coast weather.

Cuomo’s State of the State includes a commitment to “educating consumers and policymakers about the benefits of PEVs,” on the ground that “many drivers currently have only a vague understanding of plug-in electric vehicle.” In other words, the state government needs to step in and convince New Yorkers that an expensive and tiny vehicle with limited range, especially in cold weather, belongs in their garages.

He’ll face an uphill battle. Despite massive federal tax subsidies for PEVs and relentless promotion of electric vehicles by Hollywood celebrities, consumers just aren’t buying plug-in cars like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf.  The vast majority of self-consciously “green” drivers prefer hybrids, which outsell PEVs by a 30 to 1 margin, and which don’t need recharging stations.  And even at that, hybrids account for barely 3 percent of all sales.

As Bryce sums it up:

The history of the electric car is a century of failure tailgating failure. The problems haven’t changed in 100 years: All-electric vehicles, or EVs, have little range, take too long to refuel and cost way too much.

These facts aren’t really in dispute, and the “basic physics” cited by Bryce as PEV limitations won’t change. Yet, at a time when capital resources are scarce, the State of News York wants to spend $50 million of utility revenues and tax subsidies (i.e., money that originates, ultimately, with all of us) on vehicles almost none of us want.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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