Thursday, August 25, 2011

Energy Subsidies for "Fat Cats" (Part Two)

This is the second of four posts discussing the tax subsidies for renewable energy development that have been captured by large financial institutions (and Google!).

A quick overview of the energy sector, from “traditional” electricity generation to renewables:

We are a nation of gadget junkies, and our appliances, computers, TVs, cell phones, pads, pods and more essential infrastructure needs (subways, hospitals, refrigerators) are powered by electricity. We satisfy most of that electricity demand with supply from “traditional” electrical generation facilities. Traditional power plants mainly run on fossil fuels -- coal and natural gas -- which are abundant and cheap. Unfortunately, burning coal results in a parade of horribles (smog, soot, acid rain, air toxins, and greenhouse gas emissions). Natural gas is cleaner, but still a greenhouse gas. Finally, nuclear energy, although a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, has always been controversial (and even more so following the tsunami in Japan).

Unlike fossil fuels, which are abundant in the United States but ultimately finite, “alternative” sources of energy are renewable. Our primary sources of “renewable” energy include hydro, solar, wind and biomass. Hydroelectric power is relatively cheap, but derived from rivers and dams, which limits generation capacity. Sunlight and wind are free and abundant in some places, but the technology required to convert sunlight and wind into electricity is expensive. Biomass generation technology is cheaper than solar/wind, but utility-scale development is limited to areas where the underlying fuel supply is abundant.

The policy dilemma is to formulate a coherent energy policy that balances the costs and benefits of “traditional” energy (coal, natural gas and nuclear), with the costs and benefits of “renewable” energy (primarily solar and wind). Throw politics into the mix, and it’s easier said than done. However, most everyone can agree that the cost of energy has a huge impact on our individual and collective standard of living. It has an equally dramatic impact on the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers and exporters.

Thus, low-cost energy is better than high-cost energy. Although a simple concept, execution is tricky, because it is not always clear how to define the “cost” of electricity generation.

Using current technology, coal and natural gas are the cheapest sources of energy for electrical generation. They are both abundant natural resources with high energy content relative to cost of extraction, and they can both be used to provide “baseload” power without the “intermittency” problems of wind and solar power. A recent EIA report estimated the average cost of new conventional coal generation at 9.5 cents/kWh; conventional (combined cycle) natural gas at 6.6 cents/kWh; advanced nuclear at 11.4 cents/kWh; wind at 9.7 cents/kWh; solar photovoltaic at 21.1 cents/kWh; biomass at 11.3 cents/kWh; and hydro at 8.6 cents/kWh.

Unfortunately, burning coal and natural gas has negative side-effects (air pollution, smog, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, etc). These negative side-effects are not reflected in the price of the underlying commodities. Economists refer to these hidden costs (negative side-effects) as “externalities.” Basically, an externality is a negative consequence of economic activity that is not included in the price for that activity. If the “externality” were included in the price of the economic activity (“internalized”), the cost of the activity would increase, decreasing the amount of the activity.

Back to the energy sector. Although coal and natural gas are the cheapest sources of energy for electrical generation, they are “artificially” cheap. The cost of producing energy from coal and natural gas does not reflect the negative side-effects (the “externalities”). If those costs were “internalized” into the cost of the commodities, renewable energy generation would become more competitive relative to traditional fossil fuels. (Based on our existing “electrical grid” infrastructure, renewable energy also presents an “intermittency” problem. For example, the wind tends to blow more at night, when electricity demand is lower than “peak” business hours. This “intermittency” problem is an externality associated with renewable energy.)

Policymakers could “internalize” the costs of fossil fuels by imposing a tax on coal and natural gas (a “carbon” tax). However, a carbon tax would increase energy costs for residential and industrial consumers (the cost of fuel used to generate electricity would increase). Moreover, it would be impossible to ensure that the proceeds of a carbon tax would be used to defray the societal costs of traditional energy generation. Liberal politicians that advocate for such a tax would be tempted to direct the tax revenues to the liberal policy objective du jour.

In any case, it appears unlikely that Congress will enact a carbon tax while I am still alive to consume electricity. Instead, Congress has tackled the energy-cost differential from the opposite direction. Rather than increasing the cost of fossil fuels, Congress has attempted to decrease the cost of renewable energy through government subsidies. Among other subsidies, Congress has attempted to stimulate renewable energy development through tax subsidies.

In my third post on this topic, I’ll discuss the anatomy of a renewable energy deal. In my fourth post, I'll move to the tax policy angle. As foreshadowed in my first post, the tax subsidies for renewable energy development have primarily flowed to large financial institutions. Perversely, the consequence has been less renewable energy development, at a higher cost, imposing a secondary level of costs on energy consumers. So taxpayers are stuck with higher taxes, energy consumers (for the most part taxpayers) are paying higher costs for energy, while large financial institutions (and Google!) are extracting tax subsidies as intermediaries. The entire fiasco could only have been devised by our political "leaders" in Washington D.C.

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