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Electric car

The electric car subsidy fund this year is already depleted. Anyone who buys a qualifying car after June 30 will in effect receive an IOU from the state for credits of up to $5,000 to be paid when the fund is replenished.

Unsure whether incentives will be available, auto dealers don’t advertise rebate savings on low- and zero-emission cars, lest they be accused of bait-and-switch tactics.

The main purpose of the rebate programs is to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging sales of electric vehicles. Brown wants 1.5 million zero emission cars sold in the state by 2025.

Few customers have been persuaded. Although sales of electric vehicles are growing in California, they account for less than 3% of the total market for light vehicles in the state and 1% across the U.S.

Still, Californians are ahead of the game when it comes to electric car purchases. About 250,000 cars have been sold — which represents about 50% of sales across the U.S.

Ting’s bill would make the subsidy stream far more dependable, if more costly. It would require that $500 million be continuously appropriated to pay for rebates each year. The money would come from “existing funds,” including cap-and-trade revenue.

tate Sen. Steve Bradford with Gov. Jerry Brown.

State Sen. Steve Bradford with Gov. Jerry Brown. (Christian K. Lee / Los Angeles Times)

State Sen. Steve Bradford (D-Gardena) wonders, “What existing funding sources are available to hit that $3 billion?”

All he can imagine, he said, is that funds will be shifted from other environmental programs.

At a recent news conference in San Francisco, Ting said a “very significant subsidy program” is needed to jump-start electric car sales.

The new rebate program would benefit all electric car makers, but Tesla most of all. In part that’s because the Palo Alto company will probably hit production numbers next year that trigger a phase-out of a separate $7,500 federal government subsidy program after Tesla credits max out. No other car company is close to its federal subsidy limits, so, for example, buyers of a Chevy Bolt would benefit from a California tax credit on top of the federal incentive.

“There’s a federal tax credit, but this bill is anticipating that potentially falling out,” state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) said. “The mandates we set out for ourselves often lack the carrots to make the sticks work.”

The Trump administration has remained silent on the matter.

For Tesla, the bill would have the state pick up where the federal government leaves off.

It would set rebates at a level that would help reduce the consumer cost of an electric vehicle to “the cost of the most frequently sold compact car in the state.” The bill doesn’t specify a dollar amount. Today, the state rebates, when available, range from $1,500 to $5,000.

The compact car standard “is incomprehensible,” said Gene Erbin, who represents the Auto Alliance, the nation’s biggest lobby group for major automobile manufacturers. “I have no idea what that language means,” Erbin told senators at a hearing on the bill.

The Honda Civic is now the most frequently sold compact car in California, with a base price of $18,740. The new Tesla Model 3 base price is expected at about $35,000. That implies a state-subsidized rebate of $9,760 per Model 3 if the federal subsidy is included, or $17,260 if the federal subsidy is not available.

Tesla had no comment on the bill, but the company has been lobbying hard in Sacramento. “They’re always in the building,” Bradford said in a phone call from the Capitol.

The Ting bill has already faced a twisted path. When introduced this year, it put the state’s electric utilities in charge of the rebate program, to be funded by utility ratepayer money and supervised by the state Public Utilities Commission. That provoked an outcry from consumer advocates, and the bill was rewritten, putting the California Air Resources Board in charge, as it is today, but “in coordination” with the PUC.

Legislative analysts have questioned other elements of the bill that have yet to be dealt with.

In a critique for the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, analyst David Ernest Garcia wrote that “it is unclear how increased demand will lower prices” in the long run as the bill claims.

Increasing the budget of the existing program “would be a simpler and more cost-effective” solution. But the $3-billion price tag is “problematic,” he said.

Major automakers, who rarely say no to subsidies, have also slammed the bill because it excludes fuel cell vehicles and favors pure-electric subsidies over plug-in hybrids.

“It’s picking winners and losers,” state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) said.

The bill goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. An amendment to bar utility ratepayer funds will be considered as will committee member Hill’s proposal to strip references to funding because revenue sources are not clearly identified.