'Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies' by Jonathan Lesser, Debunked

In May 2018, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research published a report, “Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicles,” by Jonathan Lesser that makes a number of demonstrably false claims about electric vehicles (EVs).

By cherry-picking data, disregarding greenhouse gas emissions, and conducting analysis based on discredited assumptions, Lesser claims that widespread adoption of electric cars would increase air pollution and have a negligible impact on the global climate. In another section, Lesser criticizes government subsidies and policies that support the deployment of electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, while ignoring the at least $4 billion in subsidies and tax preferences that the oil and gas industry benefit from every year, amounting to hundreds of billions in taxpayer support for oil producers and refiners over the past century

Lesser promoted the report in a commentary published in Politico, titled “Are electric cars worse for the environment?” The commentary uses the easily debunked findings of Lesser’s report to argue that electric vehicle subsidies “might be counterproductive.” 

The report and Politico commentary are often cited by politicians and advocates who oppose electric vehicle-friendly policies and subsidies. 

Jonathan Lesser’s ‘High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies’ Report, Debunked

Many experts in the electric vehicle and energy industry have directly rebutted and debunked the research in Lesser’s report. 

Lynn Daniels and Edward J. Klock-McCook of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) published the most comprehensive and authoritative rebuttal to Lesser’s report. Daniels and Klock-McCook write:

“Conclusions are reached through misrepresentation and reliance on projections that are known to be consistently inaccurate. The same poor methods are applied to the economics of electric vehicles (EVs) and to questions about the profitability of, and public investment in, EV charging infrastructure.” 

RMI further explains that “Lesser cherry-picked the pollutants that support his narrative (in this case, SO2, NOX, and PMs [particulate matter]) and ignored the pollutant (CO2) that contradicts his narrative. A methodology that accurately accounts for all emissions results in a dramatically different result.”

The article continues to explain why the analysis of Lesser’s preferred three criteria air pollutants is itself faulty, as it depends on Energy Information Agency projections of the fuel mix for electricity generation and the levels of electric vehicle adoption through 2050, noting that “those EIA long-term forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, consistently underestimating renewables penetration and overestimating grid emissions.” The result is a “reference case for both ZEV [zero-emissions vehicle] penetration and the mix of electricity generation sources [that] will nearly certainly overestimate [electric vehicle] emissions.” 

The authors also debunk claims about the “negligible” climate impacts of electric cars, and the effectiveness and equity of electric vehicle and EV infrastructure investments.  

Daniels and Klock-McCook conclude, “Lesser’s analysis relies on projections that are recognized to be conservative; it ignores the positive carbon benefits of ZEVs; it misrepresents EVSE infrastructure investments; and it fails to provide adequate context so that ZEV subsidies, costs, and impacts may be compared to the status quo. At RMI, we believe that regardless of how you tweak the analysis or which projections you choose, ZEVs offer significant positive benefits in all scenarios.”

Even using the criteria pollutants that Lesser cherry-picks, a peer-reviewed scientific study disputes Lesser’s claims that electric cars will cause greater pollution. As David Pomeranzt of the Energy and Policy Institute notes:

“[A] peer-reviewed study by scientists from the Carnegie Mellon Vehicle Electrification Group did look at those other pollutants in 2016. They examined EVs in one of the coal-heaviest parts of the country (the PJM grid) and found that by 2018, coal plant retirements would make EVs as clean or cleaner than gasoline-powered cars on those other pollutant fronts too. Even if one were to discount the climate benefits of electric vehicles entirely, Lesser’s argument on these other kinds of pollution does not hold water. (Lesser’s report fails to acknowledge virtually any information from peer-reviewed studies like that one which have looked at the effects of electric vehicles on pollution.)”

To the issue of tax incentives and subsidies, on CleanTechnica, Zachary Shahan goes to great lengths to put electric vehicle incentives in proper context, comparing them to current and historic subsidies for the oil and gas industry.

Best Rebuttals to Lesser’s Flawed Electric Vehicle Report:

The Manhattan Institute: The Oil-Funded Think Tank that Paid for Jonathan Lesser’s Flawed Electric Vehicle Report 

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a conservative think tank that receives extensive funding from the oil and gas industry, including ExxonMobil, the Koch Family Foundations, and the Mercer Family FoundationRebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, sits on the Manhattan Institute’s board of directors. 

The Manhattan Institute and its experts have frequently published pieces and made public comments that deny the scientific consensus on climate change, including listing global warming as a top ten “environmental myth.

As recently as 2011, the Manhattan Institute, argued aggressively for the preservation of the oil and gas tax breaks

For more information on the Manhattan Institute, see their profile in Desmog’s Climate Disinformation Database

Jonathan Lesser: The ‘Short Circuit’ Report Author  

Lesser is frequently contracted by the Manhattan Institute, where he has the title of adjunct fellow. Lesser is a president of Continental Economic, where he serves as an energy industry consultant for electric utilities and oil and gas companies. He has a long track record of providing testimony and writing commentaries that dismiss the scientific consensus on climate change, and overestimate costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.

According to his CV, Lesser has submitted expert testimony and reports on behalf of major utility and fossil fuel interests like Exelon, Occidental, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, Shell, various state-based gas and utility companies, and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, an anti-wind farm group with a Koch brother as its chairman.

As recently as 2014, Lesser repeated the common climate denier myth that “global temperatures have not risen for the last 15 years,” a point that has been rebutted and disproven completely