Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, took to the Senate floor on February 27 with an impassioned plea for a small federal subsidy that has fueled an explosion of activity in the wind-power industry. “Congress is messing around back and forth, stuttering, and not getting it done,” Dorgan complained.
The so-called wind production tax credit (PTC) Dorgan was championing is tiny as subsidies go–over a decade it has cost roughly $55 million–and remarkably effective. Wind is the fastest-growing energy industry in the world, and last year was the US wind-power industry’s best ever, with power capacity equivalent to that of roughly six coal-fired power plants coming online–minus coal’s pollution. “The exciting thing is, [wind-power growth] is happening all over the country–it’s not just California,” says Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.
Nevertheless, the wind PTC struggled to get a proper hearing. Finally, on March 8, Congress approved a meager two-year extension, which wind’s supporters had tacked onto the unemployment insurance bill. That’s a short time frame for investors to do much planning, though, so Dorgan and others continue to push for at least a five-year extension.
Judged just on its merits, this would probably pass with bipartisan support. But Congress is tentatively committed to gargantuan new subsidies to coal, oil, gas and nuclear power–the only disagreement so far is exactly how obscenely enormous they will be. So the five-year wind PTC will be held hostage, to provide green window dressing for less admirable legislation. The Republican energy plan, touted in the President’s State of the Union address, would dole out $35.6 billion over ten years–or about $125 per American–to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. The Democratic Senate energy bill is larded with almost as many tax-funded mega-giveaways to polluters. By contrast, the wind PTC has, to date, cost every American about 19 cents.
The good news is that wind power and other renewables don’t have to depend on federal leadership. An energy revolution of wind, solar and clean-burning hydrogen fuels is fast approaching–thanks to engineers and entrepreneurs, farsighted state governments and business realities: Renewables have been steadily dropping in price. They are winning victories in the marketplace even while swimming against the federal riptide of subsidies to Big Oil and King Coal.
‘Greenery, Market Forces, Innovation’
America is the Persian Gulf of wind. The Energy Department estimates that wind in the Dakotas alone could meet two-thirds of America’s electricity needs; Texas could meet the last one-third. But there are good winds across America–in a ranking of the top states for wind, California, the wind-power poster-child, comes in at a lowly seventeenth. Solar power is equally bountiful: The Union of Concerned Scientists says 100 square miles in Nevada could produce enough solar electricity to power the nation.
Worldwide, solar–like wind–is experiencing growth rates reminiscent of the computer industry. Germany has harnessed a world-leading 6,000 megawatts of wind power–roughly equal to twenty coal-fired power plants–and has decided to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2025. Japan and Germany are putting photovoltaic solar panels on thousands of roofs, while Spain and the Philippines last year agreed to bring solar electricity to 400,000 rural Filipinos. A similar program has been under way in South Africa since 1999, with Nelson Mandela’s vocal support. And Ireland just announced what will be the world’s largest offshore wind park. Eddie O’Connor, managing director of Ireland’s utility Eirtricity, says offshore wind could provide two-thirds of Europe’s electricity by 2020. “The resource is there, the technology is proven, the costs continue to drop–all that is needed is the political will to see it happen,” O’Connor says.