Wind turbines in Lubbock County

Texas’ nation-leading wind industry got some good news from Capitol Hill on the first day of the new year when Congress included a one-year extension of a wind-energy tax credit that was scheduled to expire on Dec. 31.

The wind measure was part of legislation that avoided the “fiscal cliff” and prevented income tax increases for most individuals.

Extension of the wind-energy credit had been held up for months, with the chances for an extension looking bleak. Many Republicans (including losing presidential candidate Mitt Romney) opposed extending wind power’s Production Tax Credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour. Traditional-energy advocates and critics of renewable energy, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group based in Austin, had repeatedly assailed the credit.

The New York Times reported in September that the wind industry was “withering” in the absence of a credit extension, with growing numbers of layoffs by turbine manufacturers. By Dec. 27, things looked so bleak for the extension, Time posted an article online declaring it was “unlikely … in the current political atmosphere.”

After the House approved the tax bill in the early hours of New Year’s Day, however, a jubilant American Wind Energy Association (which had proposed a six-year phaseout of the extension in a bid to save it) issued a statement saying the renewal would save about half of the wind industry jobs that had been threatened – a projected 37,000 of 75,000.

The trade organization noted that the bill would cover all wind projects for which construction begins this year. “Companies that manufacture wind turbines and install them sought that definition to allow for the 18-24 months it takes to develop a new wind farm,” the group added.

Luke Metzger, director of the Austin-based advocacy group Environment Texas, issued a statement praising the congressional action because of its climate-protection and pollution-reducing potential:

Wind powers nearly 13 million homes across the country already, and in Texas avoids as much global warming pollution as taking 3.3 million cars off the road each year and saves enough water to meet the needs of 130,000 Texans. Our current national wind energy capacity also reduces air pollution by avoiding 137,000 pounds of smog-forming emissions and 91,000 pounds of soot-forming emissions every year.

Texas Tech University, situated in Lubbock near the state’s major concentrations of wind-power facilities in West Texas and the Panhandle, has been building on the successes of the state’s wind industry by launching an expanding array of related initiatives in recent years, including a “one-of-a-kind” bachelor of science degree program in 2011.

“Passage of the extension to the Production Tax Credit will be good for our wind energy education programs in that our students will be looking for internships and jobs, and this should help in that area,” Andy Swift, Texas Tech’s director of wind energy education, told Texas Climate News by email on Wednesday.

Texas has the most installed wind-power capacity of any state – just short of 11,000 megawatts (MW) – plus proposed projects totaling more than 22,000 MW under review at the end of last September, according to the the latest tally by the American Wind Energy Association.

ERCOT, the agency that manages the electric power grid in most of Texas, announced Wednesday that chilly winds that swept into the state the week before had “contributed to a new wind-power record, with wind generation providing 8,638 MW of power at 3:11 p.m. on Dec. 25.”

That number, the agency added, “represented nearly 26 percent of system load in (the) ERCOT (territory) at the time. This new record is 117 MW higher than the previous 8,521 MW record set on Nov. 10.

The November record had, itself, supplanted a Texas wind-generation record that had been set just five months before, on June 19.

Just as the renewal of the Production Tax Credit was a victory for the wind industry and its allies, it was a defeat for traditional-energy interests and advocates who had fought vigorously against it.

In a Dec. 21 article reporting that new wind installations were exceeding new power plants fueled by natural gas for the first time in 2012, Bloomberg News quoted an executive of Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest owner of nuclear plants, who argued that the “wind energy industry has matured and is thriving today,” so the tax credit “is no longer needed.”

In a report issued in November, the Texas Public Policy Foundation claimed that extending the Production Tax Credit would also impose unnecessary costs on Texas consumers (wind-power advocates say more wind power will actually drive down electricity costs) and negatively impact the reliability of the state’s power grid.

The inherently fluctuating nature of wind power has been a perennial topic for debate between its proponents and detractors. ERCOT’s statement concerning the new wind-power record on Dec. 25, touched on the reliability issue:

Unlike traditional power plants, wind power output can vary dramatically over the course of a single day, and even more so over time,” said Kent Saathoff, ERCOT’s vice president of Grid Operations and System Planning. “With new tools and experience, our operators have learned how to harness every megawatt of power they can when the wind is blowing at high levels like this.

During an outbreak of extremely cold weather in early 2011, ERCOT hailed the positive role of wind power, which “contribute(d) significantly” to electricity production in the state during blackouts attributed to outages at dozens of coal and gas plants.

Wind-energy proponents have cited that Texas event to help make their case nationally. Whether or not it helped, several national opinion polls in recent months have measured greater public support for wind and other renewable energy sources than for traditional sources.

In November, for instance, Texas A&M University reported that its National Energy Opinion Poll had found 60 percent supported “tax cuts for companies to develop renewable energy technologies” and that the public generally expresses “less support for policies focused on more traditional fuel sources.” Asked whether they favor increased use of specific sources, survey participants gave a clear nod to renewables – 79.4 percent for solar and 76 percent for wind, compared to 51.7 percent for natural gas, 30.9 percent for nuclear and 21.5 percent for coal.

The poll was conducted by the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, cooperating with the university’s Energy Institute.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons