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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tilting Against Windmills

Air Date: Week of

Environmentalists are fighting an energy bill that wind energy companies say they need to survive. Jeff Young reports from Washington.

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CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Harnessing direct sunlight and wind for energy is part of just about every environmental platform these days. So you might wonder why some environmental groups are at odds with the wind and solar industries when it comes to the energy debate in Washington. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, solar and wind power companies are eager for the continuation of tax breaks included in the now-stalled energy bill. It’s the same bill environmental groups are working to defeat.

YOUNG: Talk about twisting in the wind. The wind power industry, one of the cleanest sources of energy for the future, is now tied to a bill critics say promotes the dirty energies of the past. Environmental groups are fighting the energy bill’s subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels and regulation rollbacks for polluters. But New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, the bill’s leading advocate in the Senate, has a warning.

DOMENICI: Wind energy is finished when you kill this bill! It is gone! There she blew, like they say out on the ocean, there she blew! Right out the window with those who decided that they wanted to talk this bill to death!

YOUNG: The bill fell just two votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in the Senate, a victory for environmentalists. But those who make environmentally friendly energies mourned the loss and fear for their future. Randall Swisher leads the American Wind Energy Association, which desperately needs the energy bill’s three-year extension of a tax credit for wind farms.

SWISHER: If we weren’t in the bill, the credit that is the foundation of our industry was going to expire. And with it our industry would expire. So, yes, it was important for us to see that the energy bill moved forward.

YOUNG: For the past decade, the production tax credit provided a little less than two cents for every kilowatt hour of energy a windmill produced. That’s made wind cost-competitive with coal and gas and has driven the industry’s 25 percent annual growth. That credit expires at the end of this month. In the past, when a credit expired, Congress simply extended it. But now the credit is valuable as political leverage to pry the energy bill from the current filibuster. Swisher says that means congressional leaders are unlikely to renew it on its own.

SWISHER: If energy bill dies, extension of wind production tax credit will also die for any time in the foreseeable future.

YOUNG: That’s created uncertainty in the wind industry. Vestas Group, the world’s leading maker of wind turbines, had planned a thousand employee plant in Oregon. Now that’s up in the air. Wind farms proposed for Minnesota and Iowa are stalled, and Swisher says layoffs are coming. The outlook is also less than sunny for solar technology companies with tax breaks in the energy bill.

HAMER: The tax credits are money in the bank.

YOUNG: That’s Glen Hamer of the Solar Energy Industries Association. He says the bill would expand the use of solar with a two thousand dollar credit for home solar heaters and a plan to put solar panels on federal buildings. Hamer says that’s key because solar products’ costs go down about one fifth every time the use of the technology doubles.

HAMER: The more of these technologies we get deployed the faster will go down that cost curve, and the faster we will be cost competitive with fossils which is the goal, we know, of everyone in the environmental community.

YOUNG: It might be their common goal, but the environmental community prefers a different path. Environmentalists like Katherine Morrison with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, want the energy bill dead, despite its provisions for wind and solar industries.

MORRISON: They’re in a tough position. They have to support the tax breaks for their industry and they think that would move us forward. We feel that, you know, it is sort of the green window dressing on this bill. But we would support moving that separately. But it’s just the unbalance, with two times as many subsidies and tax breaks going to the dirty things. There are so many provisions in here that would further entrench our reliance on the dirtiest unsustainable fossil fuel and nuclear sources of energy, this is not a good bill for the country.

YOUNG: Morrison says PIRG finds even the clean parts of the bill tainted. The production tax credit, for example, also extends to garbage incinerators, a major pollution source. And the bill’s authors rejected a renewable portfolio standard, which would have ensured clean energy producers a share of the electricity market. In short, Morrison says, the renewable energies industries are stuck arguing for a bad bill. All of this sounds familiar to the wind energy association’s Randall Swisher.

SWISHER: I’ve had this discussion with quite a few friends and colleagues. And I find that generally they understand. We don’t have a lot of alternatives. If we’re not in that bill and if that bill doesn’t move, we’re out of luck.

YOUNG: It’s an awkward spot for Swisher, a guy who once worked for PIRG fighting a nuclear plant, and who describes his current job as finding ways to change the world. Now he’s telling his member companies in the wind industry to find ways to change two votes when the Senate considers the energy bill again next month. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Midwinter Log” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks - 1997)]



American Wind Energy Association

Solar Energy Industries Association

U.S. PIRG on energy


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