Is the Golden State getting ahead of itself?

Starting today, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project will offer financial incentives of up to $20,000 towards the purchase of a new, zero-emissions and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Cars like the all-electric Tesla Roadster qualify for a $5,000 rebate, and the money can be applied towards passenger cars, commercial vehicles, and neighborhood-electric cars. But are there really enough such vehicles to justify the $4.1 million program at a time when many state governments are tightening the fiscal belt?

I almost moved out to California last year in pursuit of a job, but the looming fiscal crisis was one of the reasons I reconsidered and ultimately remained in the Northeast. California still has a $20 billion budget deficit, and the state was blanketed with protests by college students as cuts were made to the education system. The Golden State is broke.

Next to the $20 billion deficit, $4.1 million isn’t all that much money, and it will surely spur some zero-emissions and plug-in hybrid vehicle purchases. But are there really enough options right now to justify the cost at a time of financial uncertainty? As far as cars go, the Tesla and a handful of startup electric automakers are the only options. The Nissan LEAF (pictured above), Ford Transit Connect Electric, and Chevy Volt don’t come out until later this year. While the program goes until the funds are used up, it also applies to neighborhood electric vehicles… which could mean electric golf karts. But on the same token, it could be applied towards electric motorcycles too.

It is a fine idea, but I think California could have waited a few more months to give would-be buyers more options. $5,000 off of a $100,000 car isn’t going to make it suddenly affordable for many people… but $5,000 off of a $32,000 Volt (after the $7,500 federal tax credit is applied) could make a much bigger difference. Will there be any money left by the time the Volt and other major electric cars finally hit showrooms this fall?

Source: Center for Sustainable Energy | Image: Nissan