Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas for Renewables

Last night the US House of Representatives passed the compromise tax bill without any amendments and by a healthy margin, though narrower than the 81-19 vote in the Senate on Wednesday. The bill now goes to the President for his signature. The provisions added after the initial negotiations between the White House and Republican leadership delivered a substantial Christmas present to the nation's renewable energy industry, including several key items on the industry's wish list: extension of the ethanol blenders' tax credit at its current rate of $0.45 per gallon; extension of the Treasury Renewable Energy Grants, which provide cash in lieu of investment tax credits; and a retroactive extension of the $1.00 per gallon biodiesel tax credit, which had lapsed at the end of 2009. However, as with many Christmas presents, the bill that will come due next year is also substantial. And the one-year extensions granted to these incentives leaves their long-term fate in the hands of the new Congress, which is widely expected to be more focused on deficit reduction than on stimulus.

This result constitutes a remarkable trifecta. As recently as a week ago it seemed likely that the Treasury Grant program would expire on schedule, and that the ethanol credit, if not actually allowed to expire, would at least be reduced to reflect its redundancy with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires refiners and fuel blenders to add biofuel to gasoline. As for the biodiesel tax credit, it looked like a lost cause all year, having failed on multiple previous attempts to reinstate it. The US ethanol industry even prevailed in having the $0.54 per gallon duty on imported ethanol extended for another year, in order to shield taxpayers from paying incentives to foreign producers and the industry from cheaper competition--though I'm not sure how competitive Brazilian cane ethanol really is these days, with sugar trading at around $0.30/lb ex duty. (As I understand the tradeoff, a gallon of cane ethanol consumes roughly the same raw materials as 10 lb. of cane sugar.)

It's a tribute to the greatly expanded scale of renewable energy that the price tag for the one-year extension of these three incentives is as high as it will be. This year, even with US wind turbine installations running well behind their record pace in 2009, the Treasury has spent $3.9 billion on the grant program for projects installing geothermal, solar, wind and other renewable electricity equipment. With continued strong growth in both solar thermal and photovoltaic projects and even a modest uptick in wind installations, the tab for 2011 could easily break $4 B. (A separate manufacturers tax credit, which had a better claim on creating green jobs here in the US, was not extended.) Meanwhile, with conventional ethanol and biodiesel blended at the mandated rates for next year, they should account for around $5.9B and $0.8 B, respectively. That comes to $10.7 billion for all three programs.

Although the tax compromise has extended the energy policy status quo for another year, change is in the air. With continued, though narrower bi-partisan support, the ethanol industry's argument that its tax credit is still necessary after 32 years--even with a steadily increasing RFS mandate--is losing credibility. Part of the industry would prefer this money to be spent encouraging infrastructure for E85 and other higher-percentage blends that represent ethanol's future growth opportunity, if any. As for the Treasury Grants, a temporary stimulus measure intended to make up for the disappearance of the tax equity market during the financial crisis, the defensibility of treating the investment tax credit on which it is based differently from any other credit in the tax code is waning. This mechanism looks increasingly exposed as the broader category of "tax expenditures" becomes an obvious target for deficit cutters, and the justification for extending it beyond next year would probably vanish if the Congress enacted legislation along the lines of Senator Graham's Clean Energy Standard. The industry should make the most of the current Christmas package, because the odds are against a repetition of it turning up under next year's tree.

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