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U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander takes dim view of propping up wind power

WASHINGTON – Public anxiety over $4 gasoline has given U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander the chance to preach about two of his favorite energy topics: wind power and electric cars.

The day after Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic bill that would have eliminated about $2 billion in tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies, Alexander stood on the Senate floor and suggested subsidies for wind power should be terminated.

“Why are we talking about Big Oil and not talking about Big Wind?” he asked.

The next day, the Maryville Republican appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to argue that short-term incentives to jump-start the use of electric vehicles is the best way to use less energy and keep down gas prices.

“If you believe that the solution to $4 gasoline and high energy prices is finding more American energy and using less, this is the best way to use less,” Alexander said.

Alexander has never made a secret of his disdain for wind power, which he argues is expensive and unreliable. At the same time, he has become one of Congress’ most enthusiastic cheerleaders for electric cars.

“The government is borrowing 40 cents for every dollar we spend, so we need to look hard at every single expenditure,” Alexander said, explaining how he turned a discussion about gas prices into a diatribe against wind power. “It seems to me that wind companies should be a prime target.”

They certainly were the prime target in the senator’s floor speech in May.

Alexander argued federal subsidies for wind production over the next year will total about $26 billion – roughly $5 billion more than the tax breaks for the five Big Oil companies. And he pointed out that, according to the Energy Information Administration, wind production received a subsidy of $18.82 per megawatt hour in 2007 – 25 times more than other power sources combined.

Other drawbacks, in Alexander’s view: Wind farms take up huge amount of space. Turbines are 50 stories high, and their flashing lights can be seen as far as 20 miles away. Wind is generally the strongest – and the land is available – where electricity isn’t actually needed, so miles of new transmission lines have to be installed.

Alexander gave no indication he intends to pursue legislation to eliminate the wind power subsidies. He even suggested it’s “entirely appropriate” for the federal government to do research and development for offshore wind farms, which he said might be a useful energy supplement in the Northeast.

Not surprisingly, Alexander was more enthusiastic when he testified before the Senate energy committee about the advantages of electric-powered cars. Alexander and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., recently re-introduced legislation to encourage their development and use.

The legislation includes incentives for buyers, money to build a charging infrastructure and grants to businesses and government to convert their fleets.

Alexander pushed similar legislation last year to no avail. The measure stands a better chance this year, he said, given the price at the pumps.

“The higher the price of gasoline goes,” he said, “the better our chances are.”