Turbine industry aims to keep tailwind blowing

Source: By Bill Loveless, USA Today • Posted: Thursday, July 7, 2016

The U.S. wind energy industry is the fastest-growing new source of electricity in the country. But it’s not resting on its laurels, especially in an election year.

Hence the launch of American Wind Action, a group that will promote the benefits of wind energy to the public as voters consider whom to elect for the White House, Congress, state legislatures and other offices where public policy is made.

“We will be working to identify and activate supporters of wind energy to encourage action from their elected officials, and we will educate the public about the actions and positions those officials take on wind energy,” Sam Enfield and Jeff Clark, members of AWA’s board of directors, said in a recent statement announcing the new coalition.

This comes as the industry enjoys a tailwind of success in the U.S., thanks largely to a decision by Congress in December to extend a tax credit for energy production from wind and other forms of renewable energy until 2020.

The measure, part of a compromise in which lawmakers also lifted restrictions on U.S. exports of crude oil, calls for the tax credit to be phased out by 2020. Nevertheless, wind energy leaders say it’s enough to provide a stable outlook that will spur new investment into the 2020s.

The win on Capitol Hill closed out a year in which the wind industry installed nearly 8,600 megawatts of electric generating capacity in 20 states.

That accounted for 41% of the new generating capacity last year, beating natural gas and solar energy, with 30% and 26%, respectively, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The industry also boasted a record for employment, with 88,000 jobs at the beginning of 2016, an increase of 20% in a year.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of wind turbine service technicians will grow 108% from 2014 to 2024, making the occupation the fastest-growing one in the country.

So why the move now to reinforce public support for wind energy?

“Personally, I think this has been overdue for some time,” Enfield said in an interview. “We did do well with the multi-year extension (of the tax credit), although as we know, the competing fuels have permanent incentives. So, we’re operating in a somewhat different reality altogether.”

The distinction, Enfield and other wind industry advocates note, is that while tax breaks for renewable energy are temporary, similar government incentives for oil and natural gas development, such as deductions for drilling costs, are permanent parts of the federal tax code.

“Oil and gas folks don’t think of them as incentives, but they’re definitely unique tax structures for their industries,” said Enfield, whose company, Windline Development, provides regulatory and environmental services to turbine projects. “Without them, the price of oil would be higher.”

And although the costs of wind power have declined significantly in recent years, making it competitive with gas-fired electricity in some parts of the U.S., turbines still has a long way to go to challenge gas for dominance across the country.

In 2015, wind power installations added up to just 4.7% of the electricity generated in the U.S.

“We still have to be mindful” of the importance of public policy to the wind industry, “especially in this era of incredibly cheap gas,” he said.

AWA, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) advocacy group, can engage in political campaign activities as long as those efforts are not its primary activity. At its launch, it claimed an “initial seven-figure budget.”

Enfield declined to specify just how much AWA has raised so far or where it will target its funding. But he indicated the main focus will be states where pro-wind-energy policies such as tax breaks and minimum requirements for renewable energy appear to be at risk.

In recent years, those battlegrounds for wind energy have included Kansas and Oklahoma, where oil and gas interests have mounted campaigns aimed at turbine development.

“This being our first season, as it were, there’s enough money to demonstrate the concept,” Enfield said, “and hopefully have an effect in some races, and educate some people who would like to see this grow over time.”