Monday, November 15, 2010

Extend or Reform?

As the US Congress returns from its election recess to take up its "lame duck" session, one of many crucial pending items it will likely take up is the so-called "extenders" package: key tax provisions that are due to expire at the end of the year, unless extended by legislative action. From an energy perspective, this includes both the expiring ethanol blenders credit and the Treasury renewable energy grants issued in lieu of the investment tax credit (ITC) for renewables. Both incentives face a much more uncertain reception when the new Congress is sworn in next January, so the lame duck might just be their last gasp.

For the ethanol credit, that is as it should be; if 32 years of federal subsidies haven't made corn ethanol competitive with gasoline--particularly when its use is now mandatory--then nothing will. The situation for the renewable energy grants is more complicated. This is a relatively new benefit that, as I've noted in previous postings, was instituted as part of last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--a.k.a. the stimulus--to substitute for a class of market transactions ("tax equity") that renewable energy developers could no longer access as a result of the financial crisis. Bridging that gap became all but essential for smaller companies without enough taxable earnings to take full advantage of the tax credit on their own, or lacking adequate working capital to afford to wait until their next tax filing to recoup the applicable ITC portion of the cost of a project.

If that situation still obtained, justifying the extension of the grants for another year or two would be easy. In the meantime, however, much has changed. Although not yet functioning at the same pace as before the financial crisis, the tax equity market is recovering. Banks and insurance companies have announced a growing number of tax equity deals in the last few months. This market might revive even faster if it weren't competing with essentially free money from the Treasury.

The other aspect of the situation that has changed is the growing dominance of large players in renewable energy project development, particularly for wind. Contrary to the perception that the Treasury grants mainly benefited small companies, more than half of the $5.4 billion in grants awarded to date went to just three companies, all of them large and profitable enough to have waited until tax time to collect their ITC benefits--though I don't doubt that getting cash up front improved the economics of their projects. For example, EDP Renovaveis, through its Horizon Wind Energy subsidiary, collected around $565 million in grants in the first half of 2010, after receiving "in excess of 685 million dollars" in 2009. Meanwhile, between its 3Q2010 earnings presentation and its 2009 full-year presentation Iberdrola Renovables claimed approximately $983 million in US renewable energy grants. NextEra Energy (the renamed parent company of Florida Power & Light) booked $556 million in grants in the first 9 months of 2010, on top of $100 million last year. All of this was entirely appropriate under the provisions of the stimulus, but it doesn't quite fit the picture of an emergency measure intended to help small, struggling firms.

Some have argued that in any case the grants are merely a matter of timing for the government: paying eligible developers cash now, or paying them the same amount later, via reduced taxes. That would only be true if every project that was eligible for a grant could (or should) proceed without one. Sparing wind farms, solar installations and other projects from the discipline of rigorous review by private investors risks allowing weaker projects to proceed, when they should either be rethought or cancelled. That was an unavoidable risk in early 2009, when the renewable energy industry was in peril of imploding, but overlooking it seems less justifiable today.

The Treasury renewable energy grants were instituted as an extreme step at an unprecedented time. It's hard to imagine that anyone intended them to become a permanent entitlement to replace the existing renewable energy tax credits, which were simultaneously extended through the end of 2012 for wind power and 2013 for most other technologies. However, if this program is to be extended for now, it ought to be reformed to exclude beneficiaries for which it constitutes merely a convenience, rather than a necessity. That would mean either capping the maximum payout for any recipient at something less than $100 million, or imposing a corporate income threshold. I'll be watching this issue with great interest between now and the end of the year.

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