RALEIGH — Dee Stewart was in Raleigh this spring to disclose poll results lauding renewable energy. It seemed a bit odd that a seasoned Republican campaign strategist would praise an industry laden with special interest subsidies.
But the Conservatives for Clean Energy event was just another sign of the increasing politicization of green energy.
“If I look at this in the context of running a race, I would look at it and say, ‘Gosh, this is a winner,’” Stewart said. “At the end of the day our state and our people are about job creations. They’ve seen the positive economic impact of renewables.”
North Carolina businessman Jay Faison founded Clear Path Action, with offices in Charlotte and Washington, D.C., to sway conservatives to champion renewable energy as a core principle. Clear Path spent $3 million on 15 GOP congressional candidates in the 2016 election cycle.
American Wind Action has made homegrown jobs the theme of television commercials airing nationally. The issue advocacy organization has plainly stated its purpose: To endorse political candidates who are strong proponents of wind energy and work to defeat their opponents. The North Carolina Sierra Club has produced YouTube videos, as well.
Even the Christian Coalition, no stranger to politics, is in on the action. It views renewable energy as an obligation to be good stewards of the planet. This month it held its third annual Conservative Clean Energy Summit with Young Conservatives for Energy Reform in Washington, D.C. The group urged immediate action to protect national, economic, and family security, with homegrown renewable jobs.
Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute whose books and articles on the energy sector have been widely quoted for two decades, is dismissive of the renewable energy jobs numbers.
“Job creation is the last refuge of the subsidy seekers,” he said. “There are tens of millions of dollars at stake in government subsidies.”
The “fat subsidies” Bryce scorns include the federal renewable production tax credit. It’s $24 per megawatt hour for many wind and solar projects, and it can be claimed over 10 years. The subsidy is set to expire in 2020. But a majority Democratic Congress could repeal that sunset.
The total wind tax giveaway to date tops $176 billion. The subsidy itself costs twice the market price of natural gas, a wind energy competitor, Bryce said.
“It’s collapsing the wholesale market for electricity. It’s distorting the market,” he said.
Bryce took aim at the Amazon Wind Farm, whose 104 turbines span Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, and Avangrid Renewables, (formerly Iberdrola), its Spanish developer, as an example of what’s wrong with the subsidy cronyism.
“Iberdrola gets the tax credits, which is what they’re all about because they can sell the tax credits for cash. Then they’re using turbines that aren’t made here, and they’re creating effectively no jobs,” Bryce said.
“Amazon gets to claim, wrongly, that their data centers are using clean or green electricity” from the wind farm, Bryce said.
Bryce agreed with Carolina Journal reports that found the electricity generated in North Carolina has no physical connection to Amazon’s data centers in northern Virginia.
In its “2016 Wind Technologies Market Report” the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy says full-time wind sector jobs hit a record high 101,000 in 2016.
Yet the 2016 Department of Energy report shows fewer than five turbine manufacturing facilities in the U.S. last year, fewer than 10 plants making blades, and just 10 tower makers.
Vestas, a Danish-based company, made 43 percent of all U.S. wind turbine installation capacity in 2016. GE Wind, a U.S. firm, accounted for 42 percent of the U.S. turbine market. Most of the remaining 15 percent of turbines were made overseas.
Beth Gargan, assistant secretary at the state Department of Commerce, said North Carolina has 68 firms that make turbines and semiconductors, under which wind equipment and solar panels would be categorized, respectively. But the data isn’t recorded in a way to determine how many of those are engaged in the renewable market, or completely unrelated industries.
The U.S. has more than 150 manufacturing facilities geared to the utility-scale wind market, but many of those are assembly plants, or make small component parts, according to the DOE report. There has been a number of closures the past several years, with a “relatively slow pace of new facility additions.”
Ryan Wiser, senior scientist at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a primary author of the 2016 wind energy report, told CJ that towers (65-80 percent), blades and hubs (50-70 percent) for wind turbines are mostly built in the U.S. because they are large, and shipping is too expensive. Equipment assembly (90 percent) is mostly a U.S. process.
But imprecise trade data makes it next to impossible to determine the physical or financial value of imported structural steel or equipment such as gearbox, generator, main shaft, bearings, brakes, bolts, controls, and electrical components.
A comprehensive survey of each manufacturer is the only way to do that, and companies are often reticent to share for obvious commercial reasons, Wiser said. Such a study was done six years ago. Researchers determined well below 20 percent of the equipment was made on U.S. soil.
While the wind energy sector is growing, Wiser and his co-authors of the 2016 report concluded that was due in large part to the renewable production tax credit and state-driven incentives such as Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards created by North Carolina and 28 other states. The REPS require public utilities to buy higher-cost renewable energy at a set percentage of its fuel source.
Technology improvements driving down wind energy costs also plays a role in the growth.
But the report says analysts forecast a downturn in the U.S. wind energy market from 2021-25 after the production tax credit is eliminated.