In the early 1990s, with
dreams of cheap and clean wind energy ascendant, Congress lavished a
generous subsidy on power from the tall, twirling turbines. The wind
industry responded, and since then has increased its installed
generating capacity 30-fold.
For 20-plus years the subsidy has been intermittent, although not as
unreliable as the winds that drive the turbines. The most recent
authorization, a 2013 extension tucked into the federal budget deal that
avoided the so-called fiscal cliff, expired Dec. 31. Applause, please,
for our do-little Congress: What's known as the wind production tax
credit has long outlived any public policy usefulness. Lawmakers now
being urged by industry lobbyists to renew the subsidy retroactively
instead should let it blow away.
We say this with no animus toward the bucolic concept
wind energy, whose clean-and-green image is to electrical generation
what puppies and kittens are to the animal kingdom. Our concern is the reality
of subsidized wind energy at a time when natural gas is more plentiful,
and cheaper, than Washington could envision in the 1990s. Today wind
generation is a comparatively expensive proposition that, whenever its
tax subsidy temporarily has vanished, has seen the new construction of
wind farms all but vanish too. These welfare payments to the industry
have incentivized private investors to sink money into wind projects
that, without the federal freebie, they're eager (and probably smart) to
Like its cousins, the ethanol
and solar industries, the wind lobby basks in political correctness and
political favoritism: Big Wind, too, has grown comfortable in its
dependence on federal and state governments that decide which energy
industries will be winners or losers — discrimination enforced by
squeezing taxpayers or rigging regulations.
News about eagles killed
by turbines is an issue
separate from government coddling, but one now emerging as a public
relations debacle. In late November, Duke Energy agreed to pay $1
million in fines in the first criminal case brought against a wind
company over the killings of federally protected birds, 14 golden eagles
and 149 other protected birds slain at two wind projects in Wyoming.
Robert G. Dreher, an acting assistant U.S. attorney general, explained
the violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act: "In this plea agreement,
Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind
projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian
Duke said it is working with federal officials and field biologists
to determine when it should shut down its turbines to limit bird deaths.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is investigating similar
cases elsewhere — and has referred seven of them to the U.S. Department
of Justice for prosecution.
Motor vehicle drivers, illegal hunters and deaths by poisoning kill
more eagles than turbines do. But growing publicity about wind farms
chewing up eagles undercuts the industry's promotion of itself as
environmentally friendly. The National Audubon Society and other
conservation groups are especially exercised about a new federal rule,
announced in December, that lets wind farms obtain 30-year permits to
lawfully kill bald and golden eagles. Many Americans who only have heard
about neighbors of wind farms criticizing the turbines' thrumming
noises will have a far easier time relating to criminal cases based on
huge blades pulverizing wildlife.
All of which pins the Obama administration between its dueling
political loyalists: environmentalists learning about the 30-year eagle
kill permits, and fans of renewable energy sources that don't spew
Wind energy's peculiar problem is that, because wind blows
erratically, companies that rely on it also need backup generating
capacity — typically fossil-fueled — for days when customers want
electricity but the air is still.
The obvious solution here
is for Congress and the White House to stop manipulating the tax code as America's de facto energy policy: Thorough
federal tax reform should sunset this arbitrary favoritism for wind energy and other politically favored industries.
Late in 2013, Big Wind fought fiercely to renew its expiring subsidy
but failed. We hope that means many members of Congress see this as a
mature industry that long ago outgrew its infancy and understand that
the nation's new wealth of lower-cost natural gas has profoundly
rewritten U.S. energy economics.
The wind lobbyists will be back in 2014, pleading for more handouts
from American taxpayers. Tell your members of Congress that a government
$17 trillion in debt — and still borrowing heavily — can't afford to
keep protecting this industry from cheaper competition.