Weekly Column by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

Posted on May 20, 2011

Where’s the Debate on ‘Big Wind?’

Weekly Column by Senator Lamar Alexander

This week [May 17-19], the Senate debated whether or not to single out five American oil companies and prohibit them from taking tax credits available to all American companies. I believe that if we are going to talk about these tax credits – these so-called “subsidies” of “Big Oil” – we ought to talk about all energy subsidies.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, fossil fuels contributed about 78 percent of our energy production in 2009 and received about 13 percent of the federal tax support for energy.

If you do the math, you’ll find that federal taxpayer support for renewable energy is at least 50 times as great per unit of energy as compared with fossil fuel energy. So why aren't we including subsidies for all renewables in our debate? Specifically, if we are talking about ‘Big Oil,’ why don't we talk about ‘Big Wind?’

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 created what is called the production tax credit for energy produced using renewable resources. Most of this money has gone to subsidize ‘Big Wind.’ It is a policy that was supposed to last a few years. It has lasted two decades.

The total cost of the wind production tax credit over the next 10 years will cost the American taxpayers more than $26 billion. In fact, the tax breaks for the five big oil companies we have been debating on the Senate floor this week actually cost less than all of the money we give to big wind. The tax breaks for the five big oil companies amount to about $21 billion over 10 years.

According to the Energy Information Administration in 2007, big wind received an $18.82 subsidy per megawatt hour -- 25 times as much per megawatt hour as subsidies for all other forms of electricity combined.

Wind is about the least efficient means of energy production we have. It accounts for just about 2 percent of our electricity. It is available only when the wind blows, which is about one-third of the time. The Tennessee Valley Authority says it is reliable even less than that, meaning we can have it when we need it only about 12 to15 percent of the time.

Wind farms take up a huge amount of space. Turbines are 50 stories high. Their flashing lights can be seen for 20 miles. An unbroken line of turbines along the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail would produce no more electricity than four nuclear reactors on 4 square miles of land.

Wind is generally the strongest--and land available--where the electricity isn't actually needed. So we have thousands of miles of new transmission lines proposed to get the energy from where it is produced to where it needs to go. Those often go through conservation areas.  And according to the National Academy of Sciences, wind power is more expensive than other forms of electricity, such as coal, nuclear, biomass, geothermal, and natural gas.

These wind turbines only last about 25 years. The question is: Who is going to take them down? Wind farms also kill as many as 275,000 birds each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They can interfere with radar systems, and many who live near them say they are very noisy.

So I ask the question: If wind has all these drawbacks, is a mature technology, and receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced, why are we subsidizing it with billions of dollars?

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