RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Clinton calls for rebuilding U.S. electric grid to carry more wind and solar power

CHICAGO -- Former President Clinton supports extending the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy as part of a plan to build a national electricity grid that could move hundreds of thousands of megawatts of trapped wind and solar power from sparsely populated states to urban markets.

Clinton told a gathering of wind energy industry officials here last night that such networks are critical to building a 21st-century economy that relies heavily on the unimpeded flow of goods, services and knowledge across states, regions and nations.

Without a national infrastructure backbone -- which Clinton also believes should extend to broadband technology -- the United States will miss critical opportunities for economic growth and have a much harder time emerging from the recessionary lag that continues to hamper a national recovery and fuels much of Washington's gridlocked politics.

"I think it's just appalling that we've got 300,000 megawatts of wind energy projects all dressed up and ready to go to the prom that can't find a connection," Clinton told several hundred people gathered to mark a decade of wind energy development in the Midwest. "But it is a metaphor for the ongoing struggle for the future versus the present."

The former president's more than hourlong address to a gala celebration for Wind on the Wires, a public policy nonprofit working to promote wind energy in the Midwest, touched on a broad spectrum of topics, from the looming "fiscal cliff" in Washington, to the realpolitik behind the 1991 Kyoto Protocol, to the meteorological factors that made Sandy a devastating superstorm.

Clinton said that a clean energy agenda can win in Washington, D.C., by focusing on positive outcomes for the country's economy rather than hand-wringing about the risks of climate change and an unhealthy dependence on fossil and nuclear power.

"There are more people willing to hear this message than ever before," Clinton said, including many moderate Republicans who believe that wind, solar, biomass and other homegrown resources can put the nation on a path toward energy security.

While commending groups like Wind on the Wires for doing the "nitty, gritty, tough work" of promoting renewable energy at the state level -- resulting in more than 30 states with renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) -- Clinton said future political success will require the forging of new alliances between allies and even traditional enemies that may have a shared interest in promoting job growth or protecting consumers from electricity shortages or prices spikes.

"You have got to not only talk about the downsides of not doing it, but the upsides of doing it," Clinton said.

Beth Soholt, Wind on the Wires' executive director, noted that the coming year will present a host of new and existing challenges for wind power advocates, including working to maintain or strengthen state-based RPSs, continuing to educate the public and policymakers about the benefits of renewable energy and "working on transforming the transmission system into a robust and flexible grid."

Wind group offers proposal to phase out tax credit

While the former president helped spin the wind industry's prospects in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., the nation's leading wind power advocacy group said it was not permanently wedded to federal tax credits.

In an afternoon announcement, the American Wind Energy Association suggested the industry could weather a six-year glide path for retiring the PTC with the 2.2-cent-per-kilowatt-hour credit getting another full year of life in 2013, followed by a gradual reduction of benefits between 2014 and 2018, after which it would go away.

"The wind industry recognizes that our country is facing significant fiscal challenges and is supportive of all energy technology incentives being reviewed and even phased down when Congress considers tax reform," the group wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. "However, the PTC has supported the wind industry in its efforts to significantly reduce the cost of producing electricity, and its continued availability for a reasonable period of time will allow the industry to invest in the cost-saving technologies required to finish the job.

Denise Bode, AWEA's CEO, said such a glide path would allow the wind energy industry to establish a base market in the near future by growing economies of scale, pursuing technology improvements and driving down costs for wind energy. At the same time, the proposal to keep the full PTC in place for 2013 would "save an entire U.S. manufacturing sector and 37,000 jobs that we'll otherwise lose" over the coming months.

Bode said the six-year PTC policy proposal began taking shape last spring when AWEA undertook detailed economic analyses, followed by high-level discussions with industry leaders and ultimately approval by the group's board of directors.

"We began this process in order to be a part of the solution on our nation's fiscal challenges, while creating needed stability for wind industry development, both of which are concerns for our industry," Bode said in a statement. "We completed the analysis, and this is what it identified as necessary for at least a minimally viable industry."

Even so, AWEA was careful to remind congressional leaders that it wasn't suggesting a full retreat from federal support. "In coordination with any phase down of the credit, we would urge Congress to consider additional policy mechanisms to encourage a diverse portfolio that includes renewable energy," the letter states.