A storm of project that has pushed Texas wind generation to No. 1 in the nation may be headed for a calm as the industry confronts the loss of a tax break it considers essential.
Opposed by many conservatives as unfair market manipulation and caught up in congressional gridlock, the tax credit aimed at boosting renewable energy lapsed at the end of 2014 – leaving wind developers in Texas and elsewhere racing to complete projects ahead of a deadline set before the credit expired.
Over the past decade, Texas rapidly has grown into the nation’s No. 1 wind power producer, even in a state where oil and gas rule. California is a distant second.
The wind industry itself acknowledges, however, that in the short term, the tax incentive is key to the success.
The federal renewable electricity production tax credit, known as PTC, provided for a tax credit of 2.3 cents for each kilowatt-hour generated over a 10-year period. It required that projects be started by 2014 and completed by 2016 to qualify. Unless Congress decides to renew the program, projects finished after that date won’t get the break.
Chicago-based Lincoln Clean Energy is among the companies under the gun. It’s still finalizing financing before continuing construction on its planned Horse Creek Wind project north of Abilene and the Electra Wind development near Wichita Falls – both 200-megawatt wind farms. Each project of that size requires roughly a $300 million investment, CEO Declan Flanagan said.
“Things are on a tight deadline, but these are very mature projects,” he said. Flanagan noted that should Congress renew the PTC, the company’s wind projects will be able to double in capacity through expansions.
Texas wind has thrived thanks to the PTC, along with the advantages of ample land, business-friendly regulations, strong wind, increased local turbine manufacturing and the state’s $7 billion Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ – a system of transmission lines linking wind generation in West Texas and the Panhandle with population centers to the east.
Although lots of projects are in development through 2016, some developers see the potential end of the Texas wind boom because of uncertainty regarding the tax credit, questions about future transmission infrastructure growth, recent legislative pushback and the near-saturation of wind projects in certain parts of the state.
Winds from Washington
Steve DeWolf founded Wind Tex Energy in Dallas and has developed several wind farm projects over the years, including West Texas’ Stephens Ranch Wind Energy project, which became fully operational in May.
But he sold that project and is focusing on wind projects in the Caribbean.
“Given the lack of cooperation in Congress and the crazies on both sides, I don’t know if the PTC is going to get passed,” DeWolf said. “And a lot of the best sites in Texas are taken, and then you have the competition from low natural gas prices.”
The technology-driven boom in production of natural gas from dense shale has made gas cheap, plentiful and competitive even with coal, let alone renewables, as a power generation source.
Although wind power is becoming more effective with turbines that are taller and cheaper to build, even the American Wind Energy Association acknowledges the tax credit is needed for a few more years to keep wind competitive with cheap electricity from natural-gas-fired power plants.
The association says the 17,000 wind-related jobs in Texas are in jeopardy.
Many remain optimistic some form of a PTC extension will receive congressional approval as part of a bundle of tax credit extensions. The PTC already experienced expirations and retroactive renewals in 2009, 2013 and 2014.
Flanagan readily admits his frustration with the constant stops and starts in the wind industry because of the status of tax credits.
“If it stays expired, it would have a chilling effect on the market for at least a couple of years,” he said. “Texas has been a pretty big focus for us the last few years, and that may or may not continue, depending on tax credits.”
Texas counts 14,192 megawatts of wind capacity in its system out of 77,000 megawatts of total grid power from all sources, according to the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, which manages more than 85 percent of the state’s grid. A megawatt powers about 500 typical Texas residences during periods of normal demand, ERCOT estimates.
ERCOT is on track to end 2015 with more than 16,000 megawatts and finish 2016 at about 20,000 megawatts – even more if the PTC is extended, according to projections.
Given the growth that has exceeded most anyone’s expectations, there was some pushback in the Texas Legislature during its session last spring.
A bill that passed the Senate but died in the House would have eliminated any further development of CREZ transmission lines and rescinded the renewable portfolio standard that requires the state to generate a specified portion of its power using renewable sources.
ERCOT already has exceeded the goal of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity required by 2025, and that’s without any of the anticipated solar power growth.
But wind developers saw the legislation as a shot across the bow.
“That’s the antithesis of business-friendly,” Flanagan said.
But “everybody sees it coming,” said John Carson, CEO of Canada-based Alterra Power Corp., which bought the Shannon Wind project in the Panhandle. “You have to have a portion of your power coming from green energy sources, or it’s going to catch up to you later.” People are greening up all over.”
Once Shannon is completed by the end of January, Facebook has agreed to buy most of the power for its planned data center in Fort Worth. Likewise, Walmart Stores is buying much of the power from San Francisco-based Pattern Energy’s Logan’s Gap Wind farm east of Abilene that was completed in September, and Google invested $75 million in Pattern’s Panhandle 2 project, which was finished late last year.
Iberdrola Renewables, which is part of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, just started up its 202-megawatt Baffin Wind Power project south of Corpus Christi. The project ties into the existing Peñascal wind complex that is now more than 600 megawatts, which makes it Iberdrola’s largest wind complex globally.
Iberdrola’s next Texas project was to be the Comanche Run Wind project in the Panhandle, but it didn’t move forward in time to qualify for the PTC, said Frank Burkhartsmeyer, CEO of Iberdrola Renewables.
Texas is a “big success story” for the company, he said, but future projects are up in the air.
“There’s no doubt the wind industry needs stability,” Burkhartsmeyer said. “We’re making 25-year commitments.”
From a gust to a breeze
One of the busiest companies in Texas is Chicago-based Invenergy, which started operations in September on its seventh Texas wind farm, the Rattlesnake Wind Energy Center near Midland.
Invenergy CEO and President Michael Polsky said, however, that he expects wind growth in Texas to slow after the rush to finish projects by 2016, even if the federal tax credit is extended. That’s because there is less need for additional wind capacity and because projects only will be added at the rate of transmission infrastructure growth.
“We’ll see a significant slowdown, even with the PTC,” Polsky said. “If it’s not extended, we’ll see no new wind in Texas for all practical purposes.”
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