Wind power gets tailwind in Congress’ budget deal

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

Drivers along Interstate 90 on both sides of Ellensburg, and those driving U.S. Route 12 between Pasco and Walla Walla have watched in recent years as towering windmills have sprouted, to the point where Washington can now generate 5.5 percent of its electrical power from wind energy.

Wind power was about to blow up against a fiscal wall at midnight on Monday.  A vital income tax credit, of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour, was about to expire.  The tax credit has allowed electricity generated from wind to remain competitive with coal and natural gas, recipients of substantial subsidies elsewhere in the tax code and in public policy.

But the tax credit was reinstated, albeit for one year, in the tax package written in the Senate and reluctantly approved on New Year’s Day by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is important:  It shows people that energy supply can diversify, create jobs at home, and that our economy can diversify,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  Cantwell is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which backed extension of the tax credit.

“From the Stateline project to the central part of the state, wind has become a huge part of the mix,” Cantwell added.  (The Stateline project, on the Washington-Oregon border south of Pasco, is one of America’s largest wind energy projects.)

Across the nation, wind energy supports about 75,000 jobs — an estimated half of which would have disappeared had the tax credit been allowed to expire.

Washington ranks sixth in the 50 states in installed wind energy capacity.  A total of 367 megawatts of capacity — roughly a third of the electricity Seattle uses on an average day — was installed in 2011 for a total of 2,570 megawatts.  Utilities, whose nuclear plants once threatened to melt down the Northwest’s economy, have become wind boosters.

When the Stateline project was dedicated — amidst fulsome politician self-praise — Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon kicked up dirt with his boots over one uncomfortable fact:  The turbines being erected had been built in Europe.  The project generated jobs only for barge operators up the Columbia River.

In 2011, with the subsidy, 70 percent of wind turbines and towers installed in the United States were built in America, double the figure from 2005.

Cantwell has long argued for a multi-year extension of the wind energy tax credit, saying it will provide the financial security that leads to much more investment.

But the new law does give wind energy producers an additional break:  Developers can claim the tax credit during construction of wind towers, not just when they are in operation.  “It is a change, but an important one,” Cantwell added.

Wind energy had bipartisan Senate support.  “There was opposition in the House — they had no wind package pending,” said Cantwell.

What tipped the scales for wind?

“The White House had religion on it,” Cantwell added.