When it comes to relationships, Congress is a big tease. Or so it must seem to the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries. Just when they think they’re about to go to the altar with the federal government, Congress becomes the runaway bride.
Everyone who’s anyone acknowledges that energy efficiency and renewable energy are indispensable to America’s future. They promise greater energy independence, clean air, steady prices, infinite supplies, a lower trade deficit, and a way to begin minimizing the suffering that will result from global climate change.
Due to the urgency of global warming, the future must start now with rapid diffusion of the clean energy technologies that are ready for market. We must also expedite the development of new efficient and renewable energy technologies and the industries that make, sell and service them.
To compete on the same playing field as oil, gas and coal — our entrenched and heavily subsidized carbon fuels — the clean energy technologies need federal help, including subsidies. For example, to help embryonic renewable energy industries reach viability, Congress implemented a Production Tax Credit (PTC) as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and scheduled it to expire in 1999, seven years later. Since 1999, Congress has extended the credit for 1-2 years at a time and has allowed it to expire three times. It currently is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, along with a bundle of other tax benefits to encourage the use of more efficient windows, furnaces and building insulation.
The result of this on-again, off-again subsidy has been boom-bust cycles for wind energy and the other technologies covered by the credit. Each time the PTC is renewed, renewable energy projects begin to blossom. Then, months before the next expiration date, investment stops because of uncertainty. In an analysis of the PTC’s impact on the wind industry, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded: