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Should the Wind Energy Industry Receive Tax Credits?

Sarah Lozanova | Wednesday January 29th, 2014 | 8 Comments

wind turbines tax policy The Production Tax Credit (PTC) expired on Dec. 31, and the wind industry is waiting to see if it will be extended, causing great financial uncertainty. The credit was extended on Jan. 1, 2013, for one year, but has been a source of contention in Congress. The uncertainty around the tax credit has made mid- and long-term planning in the renewable energy industry difficult because the tax credit has such a significant impact on the financial viability of projects. It has lapsed several times over the last 20 years and was extended at the last minute for 2013.

The PTC is a 2.3-cent per kilowatt-hour credit for electricity generated by wind, geothermal and closed-loop biomass projects for the first 10 years of operation.  It also credits 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity for landfill gas, anaerobic digestion, hydroelectric, municipal solid waste, hydrokinetic power, tidal energy, wave energy and ocean thermal.

There was a boom in wind farm construction in late 2012, as developers pushed to complete projects because the future extension of the tax credit was unknown. Despite the extension of the tax credit into 2013, wind farm construction was relatively slow over the year because many projects were pushed through in 2012. During the first three quarters of 2013, 2,400 MW of wind capacity were under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association. By comparison, there were 8,400 MW of wind capacity under construction in the first three quarters of 2012. Although the PTC was designed to help the industry, it has created boom and bust cycles and made planning difficult.

Is the PTC an important aspect of tax policy and should it be extended again?

What’s Not to Love?

Opponents of this tax credit believe that renewable energy shouldn’t get special treatment. If it isn’t financially viable by now, it shouldn’t create a tax burden for the American people. Although estimates vary, the extension of the PTC for 2013 could cost the taxpayers $6.1 billion over 10 years.

Because renewable energy projects were disproportionately prevalent in Texas, Iowa, North Dakota and Oklahoma last year, these states received a larger portion of the pie, according to a study by Institute of Energy Research. California and New York were the largest “net payers,” paying in $195 million and $162 million more than they received.

The PTC originally credited developers 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour between 1994 and 1999. The incentive has expired four times, creating boom and bust cycles in the industry. The current credit at 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour keeps pace with inflation. Despite the increasing maturity of technology since 1994, the credit hasn’t tapered off, as it has for the investment tax credit for solar energy. Some believe that the 2013 production tax credit was too generous and doesn’t push the industry to innovate because there isn’t an incentive for using new technology that has less known results.

Some opponents of the tax credit have concerns about wind energy in general. People often raise concerns of bird fatalities at public hearings about the potential siting of a new wind farm. Although wind turbine advances have decreased fatalities, wind turbines kill an estimated .27 birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity.

In some ways, the PTC has helped fill the void of a comprehensive energy policy that promotes energy diversity, economic security and low-carbon sources. The result is a patchwork of state policies, renewable portfolio standards, preferential tax treatment and tax credits.

The Good

Proponents say the tax credit is keeping energy costs down — reducing carbon emissions and boosting the economy. The oil and gas industry has many subsidies of sorts, such as the ability to lease public lands for oil and gas drilling. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office states that royalty rates for oil and gas drilling on public lands are too low.

The fossil fuel industry already benefits from preferential treatment. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that three tax preferences provide $24 billion per decade in annual benefits to BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell. These companies earned $70.5 billion in profits in the first nine months of 2013, thus it is a highly profitable industry. If the oil companies receive tax preference, why not the wind industry?

wind turbine manufacturer

In addition, there are numerous external costs to fossil fuels, far fewer than renewable energy. Fracking has high external costs, and can contaminate drinking water, cause serious health problems, reduce productivity and put strain on public infrastructure. In some cases the oil and gas industry pays for these costs, and in many cases they don’t. Society or government is burdened with the unpaid costs in the form of medical bills, infrastructure costs (water treatment facilities, roads, etc.),  collapse of fisheries (and related livelihoods), and loss of biodiversity.

Although wind turbines do kill birds, they are responsible for far fewer bird deaths than other forms of energy. Nuclear power plants kill .6 birds per GWh (2.2 times the deaths associated with wind power) and fossil fuel power plants kill 9.4 birds per GWh (38.4 times that of wind power).

Solutions

The boom and bust cycles of wind energy development need to end, as they make it particularly difficult for wind turbine research, development and manufacturing to get a strong foothold in the country. Stable, long-term policy would make this possible. Since the energy playing field is anything but level, with lots of external costs and subsidies for fossil fuels, a long-term and stable incentive would benefit everyone.

Slowly tapering off the tax credit over a decade or two according to an announced schedule would give developers, manufacturers, investors and utilities information to plan more than a year in advance. Unfortunately, the only option being discussed is a one-year extension of the tax credit or no credit at all. At least there is 6,000 to 10,000 MW of capacity in the pipeline, projects that broke ground in 2013 when the tax credit was still intact.


▼▼▼      8 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Mark_Richardson

    Bottom line, the wind PTC is about 20 times more per unit of electricity than 100 year old subsidies for oil and gas. Other than accelerated depreciation wind is out in the cold now on subsidies.

    Disappointed the author cites the Institute for Energy Research. They are a Koch affiliated think tank doing research designed to denigrate the renewable industry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Energy_Research

    The IEA could have just as easily done a study on which states oil and gas subsidies flow to. Iowa for example, has little or no oil and gas so Iowa on the losing end just as some states are on the losing end of the wind PTC. Don’t hold your breath waiting on the IEA to do that study.

    • Amanda P

      I think the author was trying to explore all points of view, thus quoted a conservative think tank.

      • Mark_Richardson

        Good point. However, ideally I think there should be an effort to stay away from such obviously biased sources or identify them as such. There are plenty of sources like the Joint Committee on Taxation that don’t have a dog in the fight.

  • Paul Shaw

    Massachusetts has major issues with the poor placement of commercial wind turbines. Litigation is taking any profit out of commercial wind. Falmouth Massachusetts is ground zero for poorly placed wind turbines on the planet. Massachusetts has thousands of certified written complaints against wind turbine noise. Massachusetts has failed and has embarrassed the wind industry .But in the other hand the wind industry hid the dirty little secret about gear box failure .These turbines only run three to five years before they need new gear boxes and blade inspections .If the blades are bad it’s over .Portsmouth High School in Rhode Island stopped all construction after a gear box failure and left the town holding a three million dollar loan. The turbines aren’t up to date and they break down

  • Jand Twitmyer

    Of course the states in the “wind corridor” from TX to Canada receive more. That is where the good onshore wind is. Offshore will get going soon and spread the help around.
    A declining balance credit would act like the German FIT that has done so well to ramp up solar in Germany, but I think the renewable energy proponents should not give an inch unless the fossil industry’s tax credits/expenditures and offloaded costs to health and the environment are addressed.

  • WakeUp3

    Wind developments are nothing more than a very expensive, destructive SYMBOL. They constitute energy SPRAWL, all for a very low return on useable energy. Many wind developments defile fragile ecosystems. All of the constructed wind developments in the U.S only supply a measly 2% of our nation’s energy needs. If the federal government had simply put out a public relations campaign to reduce energy usage, it would have resulted in a reduction that would have offset more than 2%. Conservation should be the NEW energy approach, not more ways to wreck nature so that people can continue their profligate ways.

  • Larry Miles

    “Some believe that the 2013 production tax credit was too generous and doesn’t push the industry to innovate because there isn’t an incentive for using new technology that has less known results.” Amidst all the clamor about the PTC, this subject gets very little attention.

    The PTC has existed for 20 years. Predictably, existing industry participants have found it easier to lobby for its extension than to take on the challenge of developing significantly lower cost technology.

    Perhaps it is time to try something new?

  • Bob Shultis -Energy Consultant

    Yes, absolutely it should be extended!

    First, look at it financially. Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas get $billions in subsidies. I think the last number I saw was $43 billion. Do they need the money? No. They are rolling in cash. Wind is still a fledgling industry, making productivity improvements every day. In a relatively short time Wind will be competitive with oil, gas, and coal. Provided we have the transmission grid up to speed.

    This brings me to point 2- why would we OK something like the Keystone Pipeline and refuse to fund electrical transmission upgrades- a smart grid? This makes no economic sense. Building a smart grid, and the power plants to feed it, will provide many jobs and much revenue, and decrease US dependency on foreign fossil fuels.

    Point 3- Given the present political climate in the US I am very skeptical of our enacting a carbon taxation and rebate program. When President Obama first took office in 2008 I had hope. Now I believe the Tea Party and their Republican allies have derailed this initiative.
    This could prove disastrous for the next generations (I am 56 years old so you may well be one of those “next generations” from my perspective).

    Point 4, coming from point 3, climate change is real and it is upon us. I’m a storm spotter for the NWS and have extensive background in climate and meteorology. I know lots of skeptics are pointing to our present cold winter as evidence that climate change isn’t happening. That could not be further from the truth! Climate change does not mean warmer weather in a linear sense, it means more violent and variable climate. The key is melting ice, the amount of fresh water dumped into the oceans, the impact on global ocean currents, and the subsequent impact on the jet stream. The best answer to that riddle is, at present, “we don’t know”. That’s a huge game of Russian roulette we are playing with future generations for short-term economic convenience.

    How can the PTC be improved- extend it for 5 years. Make is solid and dependable. Typically it takes at least 3 years for a wind farm to go from initial planning through commissioning. I know, I was in on the ground floor of a wind turbine company, in a very cross-functional role. Why, as an energy company/project developer, would I want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a wind farm if I’m not confident the PTC will be there?