Friday, October 03, 2008

Tenth Time Lucky?

As the House of Representatives today takes up the financial rescue package passed Wednesday night by the US Senate, the renewable energy industry and its supporters now have two dogs in this fight. Restoration of the normal functioning of the country's credit markets--the main goal of this legislation--is as essential for the financing of renewable energy projects as it is for the rest of the economy. And if the House passes the same version of this package as the Senate, the renewable energy tax credits that are due to expire at the end of the year will finally be extended, by one year for wind and by eight for solar power.

It hasn't been easy to follow the legislative process involved in the creation of the "bailout" bills taken up by the House on Monday and the Senate on Wednesday. The bill passed by the Senate and referred back to the House, HR.1424, began life as the "Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007." The Senate then amended this dormant bill with the "Emergency Economic Stabilization" provisions--a modified version of the $700 billion rescue package plus a one-year boost in FDIC deposit insurance to $250,000--and the "tax extenders" package from S.3335, the "Jobs, Energy, Families and Disaster Relief Act of 2008" that I examined when the Senate considered it in August. That's where the wind and solar tax credits come in, along with the now-infamous "Modification of Rate of Excise Tax on Certain Wooden Arrows Designed for Use by Children" measure to which I called bemused attention.

So here's the dilemma faced by the House: having heard from many of their constituents that Monday's defeat of the earlier rescue package was ill-considered, they can either put the bill exactly as passed by the Senate to a straight up-or-down vote, or they can amend it further to address the concerns of fiscally-conservative Democrats--the so-called Blue Dogs--and others to strip out some of the pork added by the Senate. In the former case, the bill would then be sent to the President for his signature and become law. However, if the House amends it prior to passage, then as I understand it, it must go to a House-Senate conference to resolve differences and then be re-voted by both houses. That entails further delays and possibly more market instability.

For the tenth time in a bit over a year, the renewable energy industry sees the possibility but not the certainty that the tax credits it regards as essential for continued growth will be extended. We should know the outcome later today. But whether this provision survives into the final economic stabilization package or not, this is no way to encourage a sector that both sides of the political divide agree is a key component of our energy security and climate change strategies. What is urgently needed is a predictable framework of incentives for energy technologies that are still at an early stage of their development and deployment, combined with a judiciously-planned phase-out, to ensure that we aren't simply creating industries that are addicted to subsidies, in the manner of the US corn ethanol industry. The energy provisions of the current bailout bill fall far short of that standard.

Update: The House passed the bill, without amendment, by a vote of 263-171.

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