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Wind-subsidy death was the right decision for the wrong reason

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At midnight Tuesday, with little fanfare, the production tax credit for wind energy expired. And according to the majority of knowledgeable observers, it is likely to remain dead at least through the coming Congress, since the Republican House of Representatives has little appetite for alternative-energy subsidies.

For the north country, the death of the tax credit that largely drove the commercial wind industry for the past decade has real significance. Along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, it will be viewed as the death knell for highly controversial projects — especially in Cape Vincent and Clayton, where there was at least some life in the effort to build new projects. In Hammond, where there was less likelihood of a project, it now appears that wind-farm opponents can breathe a sigh of relief.

On the other hand, it could be viewed as bad news in the town of Denmark, where a project proposal was largely embraced by the local population and where a number of landowners were looking forward to an economic rescue of some magnitude for hosting either towers or transmission lines. If the loss of the production tax credit kills that project, there is going to be considerable angst.

Nevertheless, it really is hard to argue that the experiment in subsidizing wind power as an alternative clean-energy source has been more of a failure than a success. Despite the long effort by the federal government to subsidize windfarms, report after report continues to provide data that seems to militate against wind as a best-choice option for renewable energy. From an economic standpoint, it wouldn’t be unfair to ask whether wind power, after a couple of decades of being subsidized, will ever be able to make it on its own. The argument has always been that subsidies were needed to level the playing field for wind-power projects. After this long, if all that bulldozing hasn’t been done, we must ask if it ever will, or could, be.

An inherent problem of wind power is that its generation is random but the demand is predictable. The wind blows when it blows, but people use the most power while they are awake. And of that power, they use the most at relatively predictable times. Thus, if the wind chooses not to blow from, say, 6 to 9 a.m. on the East Coast in the winter, all the power the region needs to wake up and go to work will have to come from somewhere else — a phenomenon known as standby power. The standby power has to come from reliable, predictable sources, most of which, especially on the East Coast, are powered by carbon fuels.

And while the increasing amount of wind power being generated across the country is taking some carbon-fuel fired power off line, a new study by Washington University of St. Louis Assistant Professor of Economics Joseph Cullen suggests that wind power tends to force cleaner-burning natural gas plants off line before it affects coal-burning plants. This, of course, would turn alternative energy policy on its ear. The plan for alternative-fuel plants has been to take coal-fired plants down.

One of the problems with the production credit has been that it has subsidized production, but done nothing significant to pay for research that would solve many of the negatives of alternative fuel plants. For example, you can’t help but wonder if, had all that capital been poured into developing effective and efficient storage batteries instead of into paying for the production of energy sources that only partially solve the problem, we might now have technology that could solve the major negatives of both wind and solar power. Storage batteries that could efficiently hold power for peak production time would solve the most galling of all alternative energy problems. It would allow solar facilities to store some energy for the storied “rainy day.” And it would allow wind power producers to capture far more of the energy the systems produce. Rather than the 30 percent capture rate that wind offers now, it could push it to a far, far higher percentage. That would make wind power competitive with fossil-fuel production, and the marketplace would determine future energy sources. And that would ease government pressure to accept at any cost a wind farm in every community, allowing the local decision making process some room to breathe. Then, a Cape Vincent could say “No thanks” while a Denmark could say “Come on in.”

We haven’t done that, however, no matter how much sense it would make. The Republicans have not necessarily abandoned wind-power subsidies for the right reason, but it might have had the right result. Maybe someone will come along, look at the landscape and say “Hey, if you want to diversify power generation sources, put some money into developing a technology that can allow that.” That’s awfully logical, though, so I hold out little hope it will happen in my lifetime.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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