When I described some of the energy implications of the debt limit crisis last month, the most serious ones were associated with a default by the US government in the event the debt ceiling wasn't extended. That risk has been resolved, for now. But that doesn't mean that everything looks rosy, especially for renewables. Renewable energy technologies and projects are far more dependent on government assistance and policies than conventional energy. The fate of a wide range of federal energy incentives looks highly uncertain, and the impact of that uncertainty is matched by doubts about the health of the US economy and its growth prospects. With the pace of growth already slowing in some renewable energy sectors, any manufacturers or project developers that aren't thinking seriously about how they would manage without federal incentives could be setting themselves up to become roadkill.
Understanding why requires taking a closer look at the debt ceiling bill that Congress passed in the context of the federal budget baseline--never mind that the US Congress has not enacted a budget in more than two years. In April the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published its assessment of what the economy would look like under the budget submitted by President Obama in February, as well as under the laws already on the books. The latter comprises the "March CBO Baseline" that was mentioned frequently during the debt limit talks and that formed the basis for comparing different proposals. (See Table 1-5 of the CBO report.) Without factoring in this week's debt limit agreement, the CBO projected a cumulative deficit for fiscal years 2012-21 of $6.7 trillion. That figure is important for several reasons.
First, it serves as a reminder that even after the $917 billion of cuts agreed up front and the $1.2-1.5 trillion of future cuts to be determined later this year, the US debt would still grow by more than $4 trillion over the next decade, mainly through increases in mandatory, or non-discretionary spending--entitlements and other untouchables. That won't change even under the deal done by the Senate and House this week; all of its pre-programmed cuts are to discretionary spending, the category into which most federal spending on renewable energy would fall.
But even that $4 trillion figure looks optimistic. As I understand it the CBO baseline assumes that next January 1 all of the Bush-era tax cuts will expire on schedule, resulting in substantial increases in taxes on both ordinary income and dividend income. And that's not just for those earning more than $200,000 per year, or whatever the threshold of "wealthy" is determined to be; it's for everyone. Nor would the Alternative Minimum Tax, which has been biting a growing number of middle class families every year, be indexed as proposed. It also assumes that the Social Security payroll tax will revert to its normal level of 6.2%, up from this year's 4.2%. Barring a dramatic improvement in the economy between now and the end of the year, it seems unlikely that all of those tax increases will be allowed to take effect. That means that the government's revenue through 2021 is likely to be significantly lower than the CBO forecast, because both growth and tax rates are likely to be lower. That translates into bigger deficits and more pressure for deficit reduction.
So the environment for continued support for renewables will be one in which the government's projected deficits continue as far as the eye can see, even after painful cuts, while its ability to continue borrowing on that scale looks suspect. With the main focus of budget cuts falling on the category that includes cash support for renewables, how likely is it that the Congress would extend the Treasury renewable energy cash grant program when it expires on December 31, 2011, or add new appropriations for the Department of Energy's Loan Guarantee Program? And if the Congressional super-committee's proposals include tax reform that would eliminate many "tax expenditures"--tax credits and deductions--then a host of programs such as the solar investment tax credit, the wind, biomass and geothermal energy production tax credit, various biofuel tax credits, and the electric vehicle purchase tax credit, could end up on the cutting block. In the coming scramble to avoid the budget knife, renewables will be competing with better-established programs with broader and more influential constituencies.
It has always been a risky proposition to build companies and industries, the economics of which depended on substantial government subsidies. Some folks could be on the verge of finding out just how risky. If we go down that path, it will probably also result in awkward questions being asked about some of the decisions made by the stewards of these government programs. They should be; I've never understood what kind of due diligence could have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in grants or "loans" going to to clean energy and automotive startups with minimal track records, when private investors weren't willing to bet on those risks at that scale. From a national energy policy and strategy perspective, our focus should not be on saving individual companies--no TARP for renewables, I suspect--but on preserving key capabilities essential to ensuring a long-term competitive US position in the global clean energy market.
What would that entail? First, as government funding for renewables becomes constrained it should be focused on R&D at the expense of deployment. Not only would the available money go much farther, but it would also create more options for the future. The next step should be to ensure that whatever the government does spend on deployment should go to projects that are close to being viable without help, or in the case of the military that enhance combat capabilities. That means, for example, focusing solar development assistance on sunny places like the southwest--preferably in proximity to existing transmission infrastructure--and putting an end to paying people to install utility and rooftop solar in places that receive less than about 5 "peak sun hours" (kWh/m2) per day, on average. Again, the money would go farther, and we'd be shoring up nearly viable operations, instead of trying to command the tide not to overwhelm the marginal ones. And finally, as I suggested last week, a greater emphasis on exports to developing country markets, where energy demand is growing at impressive rates and where renewables are becoming increasingly popular, would increase export earnings and employment while participating in volume-related unit cost reductions. And looking beyond renewable energy, the US government has a bird's nest on the ground in the form of the potential lease bid and royalty income from the substantial oil and gas resources that have been placed off limits for various reasons. Tapping those looks like a much smarter source of revenue--not to mention job creation--than selling off the Strategic Petroleum Reserve bit by bit.
If that sounds like a recipe for putting the US cleantech industry on life support after years of robust government-supported growth, then that's consistent with the severity of the fallback plan that could become necessary. The need for this would depend on the priorities set by the special Congressional deficit reduction committee established by the debt ceiling bill, and by the Congress as a whole, along with the subsequent efforts that will be necessary to prevent our long-term debt from growing beyond our ability to service it. Nor would it be quite the starvation diet it might appear, as long as states kept their renewable portfolio standards in place. This isn't a scenario the cleantech industry would willingly choose, but it's one that it can't ignore.
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