Free Market

Utah “Cash for Clunkers” Lawnmower Program Spends $250,000 for 5 Minutes of Clean Air

In a nod to the federal government’s oft-ridiculed “Cash for Clunkers” program, Utah is giving away deeply discounted electric lawnmowers in exchange for gas-powered ones.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality held its 2nd Annual lawnmower exchange event last week. This “clean air initiative” is funded by the Utah legislature through the “CARROT” program (Clean Air Retrofit, Replacement, and Off-Road Technology Program) and is administered by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The program seeks to find ways to replace higher emitting vehicles and equipment with lesser emitting alternatives.

This year, the program distributed 944 deeply subsidized electric lawnmowers, many in exchange for existing gas-powered mowers. Based on average lawnmower use and carbon emissions statistics, the program may lead to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 668 tons a year—or 4,676 tons over the seven year life of a lawnmower. This comes at a cost to Utah taxpayers of $52.49 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions removed. For comparison, scholars estimate the social costs of carbon emissions to be between $3 and $24 per ton.

In other words, Utah taxpayers are likely paying double the social costs of carbon emissions to reduce them—notably emissions that are not created during the winter inversion season, either.

Like “Cash for Clunkers,” many consumers are not trading in new gas-powered mowers, but rather mowers they were likely to replace on their own in the near future with newer, more efficient models. Perhaps some may have even purchased electric models to replace older mowers anyway. Enterprising consumers might even proactively purchase barely salvageable used mowers in order to receive the trade-in discount while retaining their existing gas mowers at home.

Like any government intervention in the market, a subsidy merely leads to inefficiencies. In this case, an arbitrary reduction in the price for consumers from $399 to $100 per mower yielded overwhelming demand. Reservations for the nearly 1,000 mowers were exhausted in the first hour, crashing the DEQ servers. News stories called this phenomenon a “success” of the program and described the program as “popular.” In reality, it is merely the operation of basic economic principles—demand for a good increases when its price is lowered, leading to a shortage of supply at prices below market equilibrium.

Ripple effects in the market for used lawnmowers will now be felt for discount shoppers looking for a second-hand mower for the season. Undoubtedly, many likely purchased a used model to qualify for the discounted trade-in price, and others who might have sold an old mower will not be selling this year. Much like “Cash for Clunkers,” the real benefit here is to the lawn mower retailers; the state purchased the mowers from Lowes.

The “Cash for Clunkers” program was also criticized because of the small impact it had on reducing emissions. Some estimates projected the emissions offset to be a mere two days worth of nationwide overall emissions. The Utah mower program has an even smaller impact—it will reduce annual emissions in Utah by 1/1,000th of a percent (0.001%) of statewide emissions.

To put that in perspective, based on emissions statistics for Utah, the amount of emissions reduced by this program is equivalent to eliminating all emissions in the state for 5.5 minutes a year. At a total cost of roughly $250,000 for the mowers, that is an expensive five minutes.

Fortunately for Utah taxpayers, the legislature declined to appropriate more money for the program this year despite a $500,000 request in the Governor’s budget for the continuation of the CARROT program. Unfortunately, not appropriating funds to a government program one year only renders the government program “mostly dead.” Be on the lookout for the state to round up loose change to resurrect programs like these in the future.


30 annual mowings at 25 hours of operation a year for exchanged gas-powered mowers. 1 hour of gas mowing is equal to 100 car miles. 2,500 mi/yr * 23.6 mpg = 105.9322 gal/yr * 19.4 lbs of carbon per gallon = 2,055.08468 lbs of CO2/yr * 7 year useful life of the replacement electric mower (warranty is only 5 years) = 14385.59276 lbs of CO2 offset over the life of the replacement electric mower.

Subtract the carbon emissions (1,176 lbs) of electricity production to charge the replacement electric mower. 30 annual electric mowings. 3.5 KWH to recharge after each mowing * 1.607 lbs of CO2/KWH (Rocky Mountain Power’s carbon emission rate) = 5.6 lbs of carbon per mowing * 30 mowings = 168 lbs of CO2/yr. * 7 yr life (warranty is only 5) = 1,176 lbs of CO2 emissions over 7 years.

Net carbon emission offset of using an electric mower = 13,209.59 lbs (6.6 tons). This is further discounted as only about 75% of electric mowers distributed were accompanied by an exchange of a gas-powered mower being taken out of service.

Total carbon offset of the 944 electric lawnmowers distributed is approximately 4,676.2 tons over 7 years. At a state subsidy of $260/per mower ($399 retail cost, customer pays the state $100 and the state receives a bulk purchase discount from the retailer) the price per ton of carbon offset is $52.49.

Annual carbon emissions in Utah are 66.4 million metric tons. The annual carbon offset for the mower exchange program is 668.03 tons. As a share of Utah’s annual carbon emissions of 66.4M, the annual offset represents 0.00001 (or 0.001%) of emissions.