Weekly Column by Senator Lamar Alexander: “It’s Time to End Big Wind’s Big Loophole”

Posted on February 22, 2012

“It’s Time to End Big Wind’s Big Loophole”

Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander

We hear a lot of talk about federal subsidies for Big Oil. But let’s focus on federal subsidies for Big Wind, which total $27 billion over 10 years—the amount of federal taxpayer dollars between 2007 and 2016 that taxpayers will have given to wind developers across our country.

The production tax credit has been there for 20 years, even though it started out as a temporary tax break in 1992 to encourage wind development. And what did we get in return for these billions of dollars of subsidies? A puny amount of unreliable electricity generated mostly at night when we don't need it.

And these aren’t your grandma's windmills. These gigantic turbines are three times as tall as the sky boxes at University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. They are taller than the Statue of Liberty, the blades are as wide as a football field, and you can see the blinking lights on top of these windmills for 20 miles.

In town after town, Americans are complaining about the noise and disturbance that come from these giant wind turbines. There is a new movie that was recently reviewed in the New York Times called "Windfall" about residents in upstate New York who are upset and have left their homes because of these big wind turbines.

The great American West, which conservationists for a century have tried to protect, has become littered with these giant towers. T. Boone Pickens, an advocate of wind power, says he doesn't want them on his own ranch because they are “ugly.” Senators John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, John Warner, and Scott Brown have all complained about the new Manhattan Island-sized wind development that will forever change the landscape off the coast of Nantucket Island.

On top of all that, these giant turbines have become a Cuisinart in the sky for birds, killing over 400,000 birds every year. In 2009, Exxon had to pay $600,000 in fines when oil developments harmed the American Eagle and other birds protected by federal law. But the federal government so far has refused to apply the same law to Big Wind, even though chopping up an eagle in a wind turbine isn’t any better than its landing and dying on an oil slick.

We have had some experience with the reliability of wind power in the Tennessee Valley Authority region. A few years ago TVA built 18 big wind turbines on top of Buffalo Mountain. The wind blows there 19 percent of the time and, according to TVA's own estimates, it is reliable 12 percent of the time. Wind power atop Buffalo Mountain has been a commercial failure.

There are obviously better alternatives, such as nuclear power. We wouldn't think of going to war in sailboats if nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers were available. And yet the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats is trying to produce enough clean energy for this country with windmills.

The U.S. uses 25 percent of all the electricity in the world – it needs to be clean, reliable and low-cost. Twenty percent of the electricity that we use today is nuclear power, and nearly 70 percent of the clean electricity we use today is nuclear. It comes from 104 reactors located at 65 sites. Each reactor consumes about one square-mile of land.

To produce the same amount of electricity with windmills would require 186,000 of these wind turbines, covering an area the size of West Virginia; we would need 19,000 miles of new transmission lines through backyards and scenic areas.

The Wall Street Journal says that “wind power is facing a make-or-break moment in Congress,” while we debate extending these subsidies. Wind power companies are on pins and needles waiting to see what Congress decides.

Taxpayers should be the ones on pins and needles. This $27 billion over 10 years is a waste of money that could be used to reduce the debt or for energy research.

Back to all this talk I mentioned about Big Oil: I am ready to reduce the subsidies for Big Oil as long as we reduce the subsidies for Big Wind at the same time. We do not need to extend the production tax credit for wind at a time when we are borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar, at a time when natural gas is cheap and nuclear power is clean, more reliable and less expensive.

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