Ben Ball

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The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee this week held a hearing on the efficiency and effectiveness of federal wind energy incentives.

The first witness, Frank Rusco, director of energy and natural resources for the Government Accountability Office, summarized his March 2013 GAO report on federal financial support for wind energy. Rusco testified that nine agencies administer 82 programs providing $4 billion in financial support to the wind industry in 2011 in the form of grants, loans, loan guarantees, and tax expenditures (targeted tax breaks). Some wind projects received support from seven initiatives, Rusco found.

Rob Gramlich, Interim CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), disputed those numbers, arguing that of the 82 initiatives only two are wind-specific, dozens are defunct, and fewer than 1% of wind projects built in recent years took both a tax credit and a Department of Energy loan.

Gramlich, however, did not dispute Rusco’s finding that 99% of federal support went for deployment of wind energy rather than R&D (pp. 17-18), nor his assessment that “it is unclear whether the incremental support some initiatives provided was always necessary for wind projects to be built” (p. 43).

Citing Rusco’s testimony in his opening statement, Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) suggested that instead of subsidizing firms that would install wind turbines anyway, Congress should fund R&D to make wind energy more competitive.

A fair point but one that indicates a more fundamental problem. When government subsidizes activities that would happen anyway, the money goes to free riders. The subsidy is a clear case of government waste. When government subsidizes activities that would otherwise be unprofitable to undertake, the money may simply prop up investments that consume more wealth than they create. If so, the subsidy is a waste of economic resources.

As three MIT scholars wrote in their assessment of President Carter’s energy programs:

The experience of the 1970s and 1980s taught us that if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support will make it so.

Too bad the Constitution does not mandate a recitation of those words prior to every congressional debate on energy policy!

My main reason for writing this post, however, is twofold. First, if Matt Damon or anyone else in Hollywood ever wants to make a reality-based movie about a conflict between community activists and greedy energy developers, he should look no further than the testimony of Audra Parker, CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Second, anyone seeking a clear overview of the economics of wind energy, should read the testimony of Cal State Fullerton professor Robert Michaels, who testified on behalf of the Institute for Energy Research.

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