Thursday, November 12, 2009

Green Power or Green Jobs

Until now I've avoided the debate over a proposed wind project in Texas involving Chinese investors, federal renewable energy stimulus grants and wind turbines from China, mainly because I didn't think I had anything salient to add to the unpleasant mix of protectionism and second-guessing that was unfolding. This morning I read a posting on the subject from the Breakthrough Institute that, while offering a coherent explanation of how we got to this point, convinced me that the real problem still hasn't been addressed. Although the inconsistency of past and present US energy policy is readily apparent, the current concerns arise from general confusion over the benefits of renewable energy, exacerbated by the recent effort to spin these projects and technologies in terms of "green jobs." When we don't really understand why we are doing something, it's easy to make any outcome look like a failure--and there is no shortage of elements from which to craft such a view in the situation at hand.

The chief complaint about the project in question is that it might be eligible to take advantage of a key energy provision of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009--this year's stimulus bill--that allows the developers of a qualifying renewable energy project to collect an up-front cash grant from the US Treasury equal to 30% of the cost of the project. In this case much of that money, along with the funds provided by the US and Chinese partners, would go to pay for wind turbines imported from China. As a result, most of the jobs this project would create would be in China, not the US. On the face of it, this looks like a colossal loophole that some high-profile legislators--who incidentally voted for the stimulus bill including this feature--are rushing to plug. However, this only looks like a nasty unintended consequence of a hastily-crafted law if you misunderstand the mechanics and purpose of the Treasury renewable energy grant program.

You have to begin with the renewable energy tax credits that were in place prior to the passage of the stimulus bill. Qualifying wind projects normally received a federal tax credit of 2 cents per kWh generated for ten years after start-up, adjusted for inflation. Along with similar tax benefits for solar and geothermal power and other renewable energy technologies, the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC) was due to expire at the end of last year. Last fall's TARP bill extended this benefit through the end of 2012*. So it's important to note that the West Texas project would have collected a similar amount of money from the government in the form of tax credits over the next decade, even without the option provided by the stimulus bill to convert those credits into an up-front cash grant. The latter merely made the cost of providing this benefit much more transparent. As noted in a report by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, well over 80% of these grants to date have gone to non-US firms.

I can appreciate the outrage this has caused, particularly when this program was so heavily hyped as a way to create new jobs in the US during a recession, and in an industry that many see as holding the key to future US competitiveness in a carbon-constrained world. However, that outrage ought to be tempered by a clear understanding of the principal purpose for establishing the grants. Prior to the failure of Lehman Bros. last year and the subsequent seizing-up of the so-called "tax equity" market, it was customary for project developers to enter into agreements with banks and other parties to exchange the rights to their future PTC benefit stream for up-front cash to invest in the projects generating these credits. When that market became illiquid, new wind project development came to a virtual standstill. With financial markets in turmoil at the beginning of 2009, the Treasury grant program was conceived as a way to jump-start renewable energy project development, until the tax-equity market revived. In that regard it has been fairly successful, as evidenced not least by the sums issued under this program so far.

I can't tell whether the architects of this program failed to work through the consequences of their efforts sufficiently to see that, with domestic turbine makers such as GE Energy accounting for less than half of the US market, a large portion of the grants would end up benefiting foreign manufacturers. Perhaps they saw that potential but didn't appreciate the firestorm of controversy it would create, when someone figured out where the money was actually going. Or perhaps at that moment they were merely hyper-focused on getting legislation passed in order to arrest the apparent free-fall of the US economy. I'll leave that to others to sort out.

There's a deeper issue here, as well. The whole episode evokes memories of the endless debates over "industrial policy" in the 1980s. The US wind industry lags its European competition in market share because European countries chose to subsidize the sector through much more generous and consistent tax benefits and a hidden tax on electricity consumers (a.k.a. the "feed-in tariff".) But while that created an advantage for the European companies involved, it didn't make them self-sustaining or overcome the inherent shortcomings of wind power's intermittent output. In that light it's hard for me to regret that the US didn't invest more money in wind over the last 20 years. Another way to look at this is that European taxpayers and consumers have borne much of the pain of driving down the costs of wind power to a point at which it can begin to compete with power generated from natural gas (and to a much lesser extent from coal) with only the modest subsidies US taxpayers have been willing to provide.

That gets to the essence of the choice we need to clarify if we are to judge fairly outcomes such as the one presented in the proposed West Texas wind farm. Are we investing in these projects and these technologies mainly to create jobs in the US, or are we investing in them to generate low-emission electricity at the cheapest cost possible, in order to run the 90+% of the economy that is not devoted to producing energy?

Selling green energy as a jobs initiative has led directly to the confusion and consternation apparent in the reaction to Chinese investors and Chinese wind turbines in this West Texas wind project. The wind industry has already developed a globalized supply chain, similar to many other industries, and no one should be stunned if wind turbines from China show up in Texas, any more than China should be surprised that its nuclear power plant construction projects are creating jobs in the US. Our assessment of the value of renewable energy sources such as wind power should hinge on their efficacy at providing reliable and cost-effective energy supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not on domestic jobs creation--even in a recession.

*Correction: A reader reminded me that the TARP bill only extended the wind PTC by one year; the longer extension occurred in the stimulus.

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