Whatever Congress does about the “fiscal cliff,” it should let subsidies for electricity-generating wind turbines die as scheduled on Monday.
These subsidies, touted by their early sponsors 20 years ago as necessary to kick-start a green industry, do little to keep carbon dioxide, an earth-warming gas generated by combustion of fossil fuels, out of the atmosphere. And that little costs a lot – $12 billion if the subsidies are renewed for another year.
Disappointing the hopes of those sponsors, costs have not declined. And since electricity cannot be stored except at great cost, every wind farm must have conventional generators as ready backups for when the wind dies down. Though wind fluctuation varies from site to site, on average current turbines produce electricity about 15 percent of the time.
The most important subsidy is a tax credit – the equivalent of cash – of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour produced. This costs $5.2 billion a year. This excludes construction grants, loan guarantees and other help that brings the total to 5.2 cents per kwh – 17 times the subsidy rate for nuclear power, according to figures from the Energy Information Administration quoted by former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). That’s still not the whole story: Nobody has counted all the state subsidies and purchase requirements, in effect in 30 states (including Massachusetts). Unwise as they are, they will keep many wind farms running.
Members of Congress are naturally under pressure from wind farm operators at home to keep the subsidies flowing. But it would amount to a political sin to do so for such an inefficient approach with the national debt ever rising and when abundant natural gas costs only one-quarter what it did four years ago.