02 Sep 2008: Opinion

Solar and Wind Power
Held Hostage – Again

Congress has repeatedly failed to extend the tax credits for renewable energy, which expire at the end of this year. The gridlock is discouraging investment in renewables and jeopardizing major solar and wind projects throughout the country.

by denis hayes

Anyone who didn’t TiVo-zap the television ads during the recent Olympics knows one thing for sure: Solar, wind, and biofuels enjoy robust bipartisan support. This was the core message of every Obama ad. It was also the core message of every McCain ad, except the one attacking Obama for being popular.

Nevertheless, Congress has repeatedly failed to extend the tax credits that are essential if America is to remain in the renewable energy business. Germany, Spain, Italy, South Korea, Greece, Australia, and many other countries all provide more generous incentives than we do. Bulgaria provides more support for renewable energy than we do. Yet we are on the verge of discontinuing even that modest support.

T. Boone Pickens has made clear that his multibillion-dollar wind power plans are contingent on the wind tax credits being renewed. Pacific Gas and Electric has contracted to build two solar photovoltaic facilities in California totaling 800 megawatts (about as much as now exists throughout the entire nation), but its plans are contingent on the solar tax credits being renewed.

Across the country, companies that have secured financing are racing hard to complete their projects before the credits expire in December. Companies that have not yet secured financing are being forced to shelve their projects because banks won’t finance them until the tax credits are in place.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, when the credits were allowed to lapse in the past (most recently in 1999, 2001, and 2003), investments in wind projects fell by 70 percent to 93 percent. That is no way to build an industry.

An independent study by Navigant Consulting found that “112,000 jobs in the wind and solar industries (78,000 wind, 34,000 solar) and $19 billion in investment” are at risk if the renewable energy tax credits are allowed to expire at the end of the year.

The House of Representatives (which does not have a filibuster) has passed an extension of the renewable tax credits, but in a form that Republicans in the Senate (which does have a filibuster) don’t like. The measure has come before the Senate eight times but could never command the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. John McCain didn’t vote for the measure on any of those eight occasions, even when he was nearby during the vote, sitting in his Senate office. (Barack Obama managed to vote for the legislation three times, although, like McCain, he was pretty busy.)

At one level, this has nothing to do with renewable energy.

During the 2006 campaign, Democrats pledged to not pass any measures that would reduce revenues or create new monetary obligations unless they identified money to pay for them somewhere else. House Democrats proposed to pay for the renewable energy credits by reducing some tax breaks for oil companies.

Substantively, the Democrats’ arguments were that, (a) after operating for a century and a half, the oil industry is sufficiently mature not to need so many subsidies; and (b) after making the highest net profits in history ($130 million in profits every day for Exxon), the oil industry is rich enough not to need so many subsidies.

Politically, the Democrats knew that the Republican leaders were so in the pocket of the oil industry that they would balk — and the Republicans could then be blamed in the election for scuttling the solar and wind subsidies.

Balk the Republicans did — eight times — placing America’s energy future in real peril as both sides played chicken.

There could have been another outcome. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, an energy-savvy Republican from Maryland, proposed a bill (H.R. 5984) that would have simply extended the tax credits for renewable energy and efficiency for one year. The bill had 75 bipartisan co-sponsors and would likely have passed with only token resistance. However, the House Democratic leadership refused to let it out of committee. An identical bill (S. 2821) was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Maria Cantwell and Republican John Ensign with 43 co-sponsors. The measure was included as an amendment to the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, which the Senate approved by a vote of 88-8.

Had the House merely passed an identical bill, the renewable energy tax credits would have been extended for one year. They then could have been reconsidered for a much longer extension next year with no election on the horizon to turn them into a political football. The House’s failure to seize that opportunity was a huge mistake.

With high gasoline prices, Congress is now under enormous pressure to “do something” on energy. As a result, we are likely to see the sort of pressure-cooker legislation that everyone later looks back on with embarrassment.

We are likely to see the sort of pressure-cooker legislation on energy that everyone later looks back on with embarrassment.”
In the House of Representatives, 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats (joined now by 97 additional representatives) have introduced the “National Conservation, Environment and Energy Independence Act.” This little gem removes many of the most crucial federal restrictions on oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. It taps the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (in the apparent belief that gasoline prices that discourage SUVs constitute a state of emergency). It ends the moratorium on oil-shale leasing, rekindling wars with ranchers and water users in the West. Almost as an afterthought, it extends the renewable energy tax credits for six years.

In the Senate, a bipartisan “gang of 10” conservatives has proposed a New Energy Reform Act (with the catchy though misleading acronym New ERA). The measure includes a couple of McCain’s pillars: offshore leasing off some East Coast and Gulf states, with a requirement (in violation of World Trade Organization rules) that all the oil remain in the United States, as well as providing accelerated depreciation for new nuclear plants. It also includes one of Obama’s goals — large subsidies to Detroit for a new generation of post-petroleum automobiles. The measure’s backers hope to buy some coal-state votes with grants for coal-to-liquid plants with “carbon-capture capability.” And, as a sweetener for those favoring a sane energy future and a measure that actually accomplishes something, it contains a five-year extension of tax credits for efficiency and renewables, paid for in part by royalties from the new oil drilling.

Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — alarmed by the pending collapse of the renewable energy industry and the public outcry over gasoline — have indicated a willingness to consider this “compromise.”

But John McCain has rejected it outright, as have many congressional Republicans under siege from Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads. The Republicans believe that an undiluted bill requiring oil drilling is a political winner for them. They don’t think the Democrats will dare to vote against a “just drill here; just drill now” bill. The Republican leadership doesn’t want to dilute its message.

After the “gasoline tax holiday” he proposed last spring was greeted with widespread derision, John McCain made a stunning flip-flop on his long-held opposition to drilling for oil in protected offshore waters. He shifted to making it the new centerpiece of his presidential campaign. That gambit is working much better than the tax holiday, although it is similarly irrelevant in the real world.

When asked in a Rasmussen survey, “Do you favor offshore drilling to bring down gasoline prices?” nearly two-thirds of Americans answered “yes.” (Alas, no one has asked “Would you favor offshore drilling in protected waters if you knew that it would not bring down gasoline prices?”)

Having read the polls, McCain proposes to give the oil industry what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid colorfully calls “a big wet kiss.” The Straight Talk Express got derailed into a purely political posture that, after the election, will have the same swift descent into irrelevance as Quemoy and Matsu.

American oil peaked 40 years ago and has been declining ever since. If we want to wean ourselves of our oil addiction while addressing global warming, drilling for just a wee bit more oil is a strange centerpiece for a national energy policy. Even high-end estimates of the amount of new offshore oil produced would be of negligible importance in the world oil market where prices are set.

Offshore drilling does serve the interests of some oil companies. But in terms of national energy policy — as John McCain knows full well — it is roughly as useful as banning gasoline lawn mowers.

Ultimately, the renewable energy tax credits will be extended. And sooner or later, a wide variety of other measures will be adopted to speed investments in hyper-efficiency and renewable energy. If the credits are not extended by the end of this year, most observers expect them to be extended retroactively early in the next legislative session.

Yet the failure to extend the tax credits is already causing significant disruptions as companies begin to revise their plans and explore options elsewhere. Banks cannot prudently finance projects based on expectations of future legislation. Such gaps in the assured availability of credits are extremely difficult for companies, and they are much more difficult for workers, and for those we expect will train the huge workforce needed for a swift transition.

The failure to extend the tax credits is causing significant disruptions as companies revise their plans and explore options elsewhere.”
The proper response is to drop the “Christmas tree” legislation. There is no urgent reason to fast track a proposal for liquids from coal and subsidies for nuclear power, oil shale, tar sands, and Detroit. None of those industries will sunset on Dec. 31 without an extension of their existing tax treatment.

In any sane world, our Congress would be able to simply extend for 10 years the existing tax credits for energy sources that produce no greenhouse gases, no bomb-grade materials, no toxic wastes, no negative balance of trade. But the last year has shown sanity to be impossible in our dueling democracy. So Congress should accept the bipartisan wisdom of Sens. Maria Cantwell and John Ensign and pass a one-year extension of all the tax credits for efficiency and renewables and then sort out the long-term policy after the election. If there needs to be some additional drilling, ideally in the Gulf Coast, in order to make this deal fly, we greens should grit our teeth and accept it.

This matters because most of the industrial world has been grappling with global warming for the last decade while the largest emitter of greenhouse gases has worked to sabotage their efforts. There is genuine grassroots anger at the United States throughout much of the world, and each additional indication that this is a trivial matter for us stokes that anger.

Assuring the credits also matters because inventors, small companies, venture capitalists, large companies, universities and colleges, and tens of thousands of workers have bet heavily that efficiency and renewable energy will play a vital role in our nation’s future. They deserve a lot more respect than our political leaders are giving them.

POSTED ON 02 Sep 2008 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics North America North America 


Becalmed is a very old word used to describe a ship idled in a windless sea.

You want us to support that?

Posted by Ray on 03 Sep 2008

The Democrats are correct. The issue will help galvanize the electorate not to repeat putting a Republican in office for the Presidency and hopefully to give the Democrats bigger majorities in Congress, when they will be able to put a Clean energy bill before a President who will be willing sign it into law.
Posted by Anthony Mazzenga on 04 Sep 2008

What will and has galvanized the public is expensive energy. We are currently seeing congress back away from the moratorium on off shore drilling and further investment in expensive renewables.

When and if solar and wind evolve into viable alternatives they will be adopted and in turn make oil obsolete.
Posted by Ray on 04 Sep 2008

Our great country can not endure another four years of McCain/Bush policy when it comes to the environment. Back in the 70's we missed an opportunity to work on alternative energy, we can't afford to miss that opportunity in the 21st century. More efforts need to be made in solar, wind and alternative energies and a huge step in that direction would be tax incentives to the American people and companies that want to reduce their carbon footprint. The exploration of new energy alternatives will give our country new direction, create new job opportunities and protect our sensitive shorelines from the off-shore drilling proposal the republicans are trying to push through with their scare tactics.
Posted by JJ Chague on 04 Sep 2008

Great for any number of good reasons. Lets explore options to fossil fuels, but why cause the world great economic pain by demanding they be implemented before those alternate fuels can compete with traditional fuels?

Why demand an energy policy which at this time cannot stand on its own two feet? Have you no faith in alternate energys evolution?

The stone age did not end for the lack of stones.
Posted by Ray on 04 Sep 2008

This is happening when it is a fact that the state of California is having oil consumption more than what India is consuming.

USA is the great guzzler of oil and efforts should be made to have more renewable energy than is available from oil. Dependence on oil is too bad for the world.
Posted by P.D.KULKARNI on 05 Sep 2008

There should be no reason why we can't make a fast switch over to renewable and alternative energy - FAST - remember the Industrial Revolution? We did it before, we can do it again - the hovering raincloud is money.
Posted by Courtney on 05 Sep 2008

VERY FAST but first they need to be better and cheaper than what we currently use.
Posted by Ray on 05 Sep 2008

First, Kulkarni, for the love of Pete please learn to use lowercase letters.

Second, I expect that alternative energy will only get cheaper than we what currently use (I'm ignoring the issue of better, for now) when what we currently use gets really expensive. I mean, I can't tell you how many times in the past year I've seen articles about some great new energy thing which is now cost-effective with oil at $100 (or $60 or $140 or whatever) a barrel. In my opinion, we'll only stop using fossil fuels when they price themselves out of the market, rather than having alternatives price themselves into the market.
Posted by DugglesG on 06 Sep 2008

The recent high costs for fossil energy is the result of political pressure and a spike in demand (China) not the lack of resources. Left alone suppliers would meet that demand and prices will again fall.

Ignoring the spikes, the cost of energy over time has been going down. Our more efficient extraction and use of energy makes it cheaper now than anytime in our past.

Posted by Ray on 07 Sep 2008

I was told that our existing infrastructure does not have the capacity to store additional energy production. Can someone comment on the ability to store energy generated by wind and solar?
Posted by Georgia on 07 Sep 2008

That infrastructure lack is only if we decide that we are going to centralize alternative energy. For example if the American southwest is expected to provide energy derived from solar power to the rest of the nation huge power lines would have to be built fanning out from the southwest. There is currently not enough existing infrastructure for this kind of massive centralized energy. One incentive for centralizing energy is so that people have to continue to pay someone else for their energy.

But the problem evaporates if individuals decide to take their energy needs into their own hands. De-centralized energy is small scale (per family or small community) and it's not as difficult to get enough solar power when you only need enough for a family of, say four. People can DIY (do it yourself). Here's a website devoted to just that. http://www.builditsolar.com/

Don't wait for politicians that will never come around to do the right thing.
Posted by Byron on 08 Sep 2008

The life expectancy of a solar panel is 30 years, it will not in that period of time generate the power it took to create itself.

Thats a lot like using your Master Card to pay off your Visa.
Posted by Ray on 08 Sep 2008

Ray's comment re the energy payback time pops up frequently on the web -- though never in the refereed scientific literature.

Depending on where you draw your boundaries for inclusion, and which PV materials you are discussing and how they are mounted and framed, and what insolation is availble where they are located (Arizona being better than Alaska), the overwhelming majority of studies conclude that the payback period is between a few months and a few years.

The payback period is declining as production processes advance, with thin films using much less material and all techniques producing much less waste of purified material.

An excellent brief summary and overview of many of these studies can be found in Bankier and Gale, Energy Payback of Roof-Mounted Photovoltaic Cells. http://www.energybulletin.net/node/17219 The authors concluded that, with current technology, the full energy payback for the average residential module would be about four years.

It is now two years since their article was written and substantial progress has been made. I would hazard a guess that the average payback is now three years or less.

Everyone -- literally everyone! -- who uses a citation for the "negative net payback" thesis cites Howard Odum. Odum based his analysis on completely outmoded production and installation techniques, assumed centralized powerplants with thick (energy-dense) cement foundations, and used a unique type of analysis that includes, for example, all the energy that went into the diets of the people who made the modules, transported them, and installed them -- apparently assuming that if they weren't installing PV, none of those people would eat. Odum's own disciples are now finding significant positive net energy when they analyze contemporary PV units.

Most people who have looked hard at the net payback issue believe four years to be a conservative number. With development we can now foresee, it should soon fall to less than one year.
Posted by Denis Hayes on 08 Sep 2008

I disagree based upon the information posted below.

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) Sept 3, 08

"SOLAR PANELS are one of the least cost-effective ways of combating climate change and will take 100 years to pay back their installation costs."

US dept of Energy


Posted by Ray on 08 Sep 2008

Ray -- This is not a faith-based question, like
whether a one-cell human zygote is a "person"
pr whether solar panels are "ugly" about which
disagreements cannot be resolved by evidence.
Resolving disputes over energy payback of a
system is simply a matter of taking careful
measurements, drawing reasonable boundaries,
and performing some simple math.

Regarding the "information" on which you base
your disagreement:

1. The report of the Royal Institution of
Chartered Surveyors did not address the
ENERGY payback of solar panels but rather the
FINANCIAL payback. I"m happy to join the
chorus of critics that have assailed that report
for, inter alia, (a) comparing the marginal cost
of electricity from solar with the average cost of
grid electricity; (b) of assuming static prices
into the future for both solar and competing
fuels; (c) of assuming that a solar array does
not add to the value of a house, so the full cost
(even using solar shingles!) must be attributed
to power generation; (d) of ignoring
externalities from conventional generation,
including climate disruption, and their likely
internalization soon -- not to mention (e) the
astonishingly low capacity factor he assumes for
PV -- but this is all beside the point. The
Chartered Surveyors' consumer guide deals with
the payback of money, not energy.

(2) Similarly, the NREL web page that you list
deals only with economic paybacks. For the
views of the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory's views of the topic that you are I
are disputing -- energy payback -- the correct
URL is http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/35489.pdf --
which is titled "What is the Energy Payback for
PV? It answers that question: "Energy payback
estimates for rooftop PV systems are 4, 3, 2,
and 1 years: 4 years for systems using current
multicrystalline-silicon PV modules, 3 years for
current thin-film modules, 2 years for
anticipated mulicrystalline modules, and 1 year
for anticipated thin film modules." Elsewhere,
the NREL article states: "the idea that PV cannot
pay back its energy investment is simply a

This issue isn't controversial anymore in the
solar analytical field.
Posted by Denis Hayes on 09 Sep 2008

Brief..on the way though. Thanks Denis, I had taken this up with money as a being the sole unit of payback. I hope the industry continues to improve....cheers Ray
Posted by Ray on 09 Sep 2008

The oil and gas industries are also quite expensive, and if they had to pay for their own security by stabilizing the Middle East and propping up Saudi and other corrupt regimes, rather than receiving the HUGE public subsidy of having the U.S. military doing it for them (and for Europe, btw), then oil would also be largely non-competitive.

It's wrong to think that an openly admitted subsidy is somehow worse and more economically damaging than an unadmitted subsidy.
Posted by Erik on 10 Sep 2008

As part of my job, I regularly look at the economic payback of PV solar systems. Typically a single family home PV system pays back (simple payback - using today's electric rates and costs) in around 20 years using crystalline cells (of course this varies with where you live). The new thin films coming out in the next year or two should decrease this economic payback to around 10 - 12 years due to lower cost of the PV panels. The savings are calculated against the electric energy costs not payed to utility. However, when we get plug in hybrids, and we offset the cost of the PV system with saved fuel costs, one plug-in car will reduce the payback to 3 - 5 years, and 2 cars on average will reduce the payback to 2 -3 years (based on 12k mi/yr and $4/gal). If we start valuing emitted carbon, the payback will be even faster.

Finally, if you think about the fact that only about 10% of the original energy from the fuel burned to generate your electricity actually reaches your home, PV panels at your home that supply 80-90% of the electricity they generate to your appliances, heating and cooling systems, and lights, this is a pretty good deal for the environment and goes a long way towards improving sustainability.

Posted by Jacob on 14 Sep 2008

Erik, I agree that the price of oil does not accurately reflect the subsidy it receives from the
U.S. military. Additionally, it also does not include
the external cost paid by the planet in general
stemming from greenhouse gas emissions. These
two massive costs, if internalized into the price of
oil, would quickly make alternative energy sources
Jacob (dif from other commenter above)
Posted by ForceChange.com on 15 Sep 2008

Erik, I refuse to buy into the oil war which in my eyes, and many others, renders that argument bunk. We were buying the oil before the embargo, we will buy it afterwards, nothing has changed.

There is no question we should have an alternative to oil for any number of good reasons but why need that change circumvent market reality?

We have lots of oil, there are really great options just around the corner, why?
Posted by Ray on 16 Sep 2008

I was trying to re-find a web calculator that I used to calculate payback for wind and solar for my zip code and ran across this site. (Still looking for the pro-alternative energy web site BTW).

Two comments:

1. For my area and wind/solar conditions, the economic payback as calculated by the site (that was trying to encourage me to invest) on wind was 130 years and the payback on solar was 60 years in round numbers. We have no govt incentives and electric is slightly more than $.08/kwh, but with paybacks like the web calculator stated, I'd need one heck of a govt incentive to bring the payback to some reasonable level. Of course neither system would survive a fraction of the payback period anyway, especially the wind machine with its rotating parts. And my area is highly prone to hail and wind damage anyway so I would need an extra short payback. There has to be REAL economic value to these systems.

2. Per the comment on PV and energy payback, no contest on the general principle except that I refuse to buy into the idea that PV gets the wafer and prep for free since they use what the semiconductor industry would otherwise discard. That is a bogus finagle. Count that energy in the total energy cost--pulling the silicon ingots, slicing them into wafers, and polishing them...huge energy costs. It will still come out favorable but will take much longer to pay back in energy. Even the NREL study says that things get a little complicated in calculating real energy. Companies like Nanosolar have the advantage there because they print their PV...I'd like hard numbers on how long their cells will last though.

So...I'm still looking for ways to bring my home energy and resource costs down without spending all I have to get there.

Posted by MN on 24 Oct 2008

I don't doubt that you actually believe some of the things you write, but you're writing a great volume of sheer nonsense. The amount of oil the US owns offshore, on the North Slope, and in oil shales in the Rockies is almost twice existing, known oil reserves around the entire world.

A national commitment to leasing and developing internal oil reserves would have a powerful, immediate impact on world oil prices. The economic principle demonstrating this is so well-known and well-established that economists writing about it cannot get published in peer-reviewed journals, not because anybody disagrees, but because the principle has been undisputed by professional economists since the 1930s; claiming that developing our oil reserves won't affect prices is, to anyone familiar with economics, like claiming that the sky is not blue.

Besides, even if the price of oil were not affected directly, the US balance of payments is negative by about $700 billion annually due to oil purchases, and any contribution to improving this situation benefits the dollar, which in turn benefits all of us.

I can understand a principled objection to fossil fuels based on the assessment that burning them is bad for the air; however, attempting to claim that we don't have enough oil to change our current situation is the stuff of the flat-earth society. You really need to take off the blinders and assess the facts accurately.
Posted by Plumb Bob on 03 Nov 2008

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Denis Hayes is president of the Bullitt Foundation and chairman of the board of trustees of the American Solar Energy Society. He was director of the federal Solar Energy Research Institute during the Carter administration and was national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, and he now is chair emeritus of the International Earth Day Network. In his last article for Yale Environment 360, he outlined a bold new energy strategy for the United States.



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