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Opinion: Times article on Musk’s “empire” being fueled by government subsidies is grossly one-sided [Updated]

The Times published an article over the weekend titled “Elon Musk’s growing empire is fueled by government subsidies”. The article is well-researched and mostly accurate, but it conveys a clear disdain for the fact that Musk’s companies are taking advantage of the government subsidies available to them.

The publication compiled data from government programs and came to the conclusion that Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX, three companies Musk is involved in, have benefited from an “estimated $4.9 billion in government support”. I will not dispute the actual amount, but I’d like to bring up a few points which weren’t discussed in the article and that are highly relevant to the subject.

First of, the $4.9 billion figure appears to includes money Tesla Motors received from the ZEV program. Although the author mentioned that the money is coming from other automakers and not tax payers, he failed to explain that the government is not actually forcing automakers to finance Tesla through the program:

“The Palo Alto company has also collected more than $517 million from competing automakers by selling environmental credits. In a regulatory system pioneered by California and adopted by nine other states, automakers must buy the credits if they fail to sell enough zero-emissions cars to meet mandates. The tally also includes some federal environmental credits.”

This government program predates Tesla by decades and is financed by car companies who don’t offer or manufacture enough zero-emission vehicles to comply with the mandate. Manufacturers who don’t have enough credits to compensate for the number of pollution emitting cars sold in the “CARB states” have to either pay a $5,000 fine per missing credit or they can buy credits from manufacturers with a credit surplus like Tesla. At any point they can simply decide to pay the fine instead of financing Tesla. The program is overwhelmingly appreciated by everyone but the few automakers who have yet to make environmentally-friendly vehicles a priority.

Although not explicitly mentioned, the figure seems to also include the DOE loan Tesla received in 2010:

“The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.”

This $465 million loan from the Department of Energy was paid back in advance with interest in 2013. The money was awarded based on milestones and required matching private capital. American tax payers actually made money on this loan to Tesla which was part of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program. Through the program, Ford was awarded $5.9 billion and Nissan $1.4 billion among others.

The article went on about the state of New York spending $750 million to build a factory for SolarCity:

“New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.”

The state is indeed spending $750 million to build a factory for SolarCity, but the state will own the factory. The state expects to spend $350 million to build the plant and $400 million for equipment. Since they will be owning the factory, of course they will cover property taxes, not SolarCity. The company secured a $1 per year lease for the next 10 years with an option to renew. SolarCity would have to spend $5 billion over the term of the lease and employ directly 1,450 workers at the Buffalo factory and 2,000 additional employees in New York

If SolarCity was to fail to deliver on these terms, they are subject to a $41.2 million penalty payable to the Research Foundation of SUNY, the organisation overseeing the project for the state, for every year they don’t comply with the terms. Not only the state’s investment is backed by the fact that they own the infrastructure, but they also get their money back if SolarCity fails to properly utilize the money invested.

Similar terms are also included in the agreement Tesla has with the state of Nevada for the “Gigafactory”. The Times’ $4.9 billion figure includes the estimated $1.3 billion in tax breaks Tesla is expected to receive for their battery factory project. In this case, Tesla owns the project, but if they fail to deliver on the 6,500 expected new jobs, they will see the $1.3 billion figure being significantly reduced.

The author quoted Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research:

“He definitely goes where there is government money. That’s a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day.”

The article leaves us thinking that the purpose of these companies is to operate in heavily subsidized industries rather than operating in industries extremely important to the future of our planet and therefore are subsidized by the government.

Also, whenever the subject of subsidies for green technologies comes up, I always like to remind how whatever figure you can come up with, it will always be dwarfed by the fossil fuel subsidies. Here is the recent report on Global Energy Subsidies from the IMF.

Update – June 1st 15:45 ET: Musk went on CNBC to argue against the LA Times article. You can watch the video here:

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  1. Cheerful Clips - 8 years ago

    May 31
    The trouble with both Tesla and SolarCity is they are way behind on Job Creation for Emergency Clean-Up Work Crew Jobs. Clearly there are signs of an expanding Emergency Clean-Up Work Crew Job Creation Gap. SolarCity, as well as Tesla, has a lot of catching up to do because the Coal / Oil / Fracking Natural Gas / Tar Sands / Nuclear Radiation / Corporations are way ahead in creating Emergency Clean-Up Crew Jobs. Sure those jobs are temporary and close to minimum wage – yet increasingly frequent. Just research all the oil tanker train car explosions, pipeline leaks of stuff onto the ground, into creeks, streams, ponds, lakes and communities. They are so way ahead on ocean and shoreline clean up job creation as well that it is going to be nearly impossible for Tesla and SolarCity to ever close the Emergency Clean-Up Crew Job Creation Gap. And that is not to mention a growing Catastrophic Disaster Job Creation Gap that soon will emerge as Global CO2 Climate Change really kicks in with perfect storms, drought, floods, plant, crop, fish, bird and animal die-offs. Tesla and SolarCity may never be able to catch up. Stay Tuned.

  2. Sub Vent - 8 years ago

    These numbers are peanuts compare to Pentagon spending of $565B. What percentage of that would you say goes to keeping the oil flowing? 10%? 20%? If not for oil do you think we’d give a spit about the Gulf of Hormuz? The dollars spent on renewable are laid bare while the fossil subsidies are far less obvious, but much larger.

  3. Garn - 8 years ago

    It should also be noted that when other car companies buy those ZEV credits from Tesla they buy them at a discount. I believe as much as 50% on the dollar.

    • Fred Lambert - 8 years ago

      Correct. The advantage of buying the credits is that it’s cheaper than paying the fine of course, although the discount is not clear and can vary. Musk indeed said something like “50 cents on the dollar” during the last conference call, but Tesla has been known before to be able to sell ZEV credits for close to $4,000.

  4. Daniel Steinberg - 8 years ago

    This is just INSANE and horribly irresponsible. So Tesla/SolarCity/SpaceX get $4.9 billion over how many years? And this article has already shown that that figure is grossly inflated given weak or irrelevant inclusions. To clarify how oil subsidies dwarf this:

    “As of July 2014, Oil Change International estimates U.S. fossil fuel subsidies at $37.5 billion annually, including $21 billion in production and exploration subsidies.”

  5. […] involved in, have benefited from “$4.9 billion in government support”. Saturday, I wrote an opinion piece about how I thought the article is grossly one-sided. Since then, the LA Times released a […]


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