You probably recall that last month I detailed a study claiming that wind-created energy saved consumers $1 billion in last year’s “polar vortex.” Ironically enough, it was released on the anniversary of the 2014 polar vortex in the midst of more unusually cold weather at a time when the favored energy source of natural gas was serving the twin masters of electricity generation and home heating.
Yet a bone of contention for the wind industry has been the overdue renewal of a production credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour, allowed over the first ten years of a qualifying project’s life. A five-year extension of this credit, sponsored by Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, was included in an amendment to the Keystone XL authorization bill in the Senate, but the amendment lost 47-51. One opponent of the credit, Americans for Limited Government, called it:
(J)ust another example of the crony capitalism that runs rampant in Washington, D.C. distorting our nation’s energy markets while encouraging the non-economically sustainable wind farming of America.
Of course, the American Wind Energy Association, while touting the increased capacity put into place last year, lamented the lack of this tax incentive:
2014 saw the completion of 4,850 megawatts (MW) in generating capacity, with cumulative installed capacity increasing eight percent to a total of 65,875 MW. That current wind capacity will avoid over 130 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, equal to taking 28 million cars off the road, when the current wind capacity produces generation for a full year.
However, the amount installed in 2014 still falls far short of the record 13,000 MW that the U.S. wind energy industry was able to complete during 2012.
Industry leaders blamed uncertainty over federal policy. The renewable energy Production Tax Credit was only extended for two weeks at the end of last year, and has now expired again.
“Wind is gaining strength, but as recent history shows, we can do a whole lot more,” said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan. “We’re looking forward to working with Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle so that a reasonable, responsible tax policy is in place that allows the wind industry to continue lowering costs and investing billions of dollars in U.S. communities.”
So is it a “reasonable, responsible tax policy,” or a boondoggle?
As noted above, the tax credit is equal to 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average American home uses just over 900 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. Rounding down to 900 for ease of math, it means that each month a wind-powered home creates a tax credit of $20.70 – over a year that adds up to $248.40.
In the same AWEA release, they claim that “U.S. wind farms now provide enough power for the equivalent of 18 million typical American homes.” If this is so, then the annual cost of this tax credit would be nearly $4.5 billion. Granted, this assumes that all wind capacity in the country would qualify for the credit, but stick with me.
Yesterday our not-so-illustrious former governor Martin O’Malley blustered in the New York Times that:
(R)enewable-energy businesses still aren’t even competing on a level playing field with fossil-fuel companies, which enjoy more than $4 billion in guaranteed federal subsidies each year.
Yet if you work out the wind power tax credit, that section of renewables could get a tax break exceeding $4 billion per year, not to mention the carve-outs states like Maryland provide for renewables at the expense of less expensive and more reliable fossil fuels. The benefit of having a share of a market worth tens of billions of dollars handed to renewable energy (or, as is more common, the treatment of this rent-seeking as a penalty paid by energy companies) is rarely factored into the equation, but stands as an advantage for the renewables side that traditional sources do not enjoy.
To really get a sense of where wind power can compete, not only should we permanently eliminate the Wind Production Tax Credit, but also do away with the market share requirements for renewables. Only then can we get a sense of where the market really is for that type of energy.
There’s a reason we have cars that run on gasoline, electrical plants which run on coal and natural gas, and fervent exploration for new sources of oil, just as there’s a reason wind turbine construction came to a near-halt in 2013. The market seeks its own level.