Cleantech Market Intelligence
A Small Change with a Big Impact for U.S. Wind Incentives
An easily overlooked change in guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) last week may seem like arcane minutia, but it will have a profound impact on the U.S. wind market, measured in billions of dollars and gigawatts installed through 2023.
First some background. In late 2015, the U.S. wind industry and its stakeholders succeeded in securing from congress an elusive policy goal: long-term market certainty. Federal tax credits, predominantly in the form of the Production Tax Credit (PTC), have typically been provided to the wind industry in 1- and 2-year increments. The PTC pays $0.023 per kWh of energy produced for 10 years of operation of a wind plant, which amounts to roughly 30% of the total installed cost of a wind plant. Or it can be taken as a one-time Investment Tax Credit (ITC) worth approximately the same amount.
The 2015 legislation was a significant twist on wind policy. It was a deal between industry and government for the wind industry to eventually give up its tax credits in exchange for a 4-year gradual phaseout of the credits. It was structured so that wind plants that began construction by the end of 2016 would receive 100% PTC value, projects starting construction in 2017 would receive 80% of the PTC value, 60% in 2018, 40% in 2019, and zero in 2020. Start construction is defined as significant site work or 5% of project cost incurred.
The minutia that matters is the start construction guidelines and how long a wind plant is given to come online. In recent years, the IRS guidance of the PTC was to allow wind plants 2 years to complete construction in order to avoid a requirement to show continuous construction progress. That would result in 2018 being the peak capacity installation year, as wind plants starting construction in 2016 would come online by 2018 in order to secure 100% PTC value.
A Pathway to Offshore Wind
The guidance provided by the IRS last week changed the construction window from 2 years to 4 years. It also removes a previous guideline that stipulated construction must be continuous in nature. Combined, this will take a lot of pressure off the wind industry so it doesn’t have to rapidly build as fast as possible to meet a 2-year window. Wind plants seeking 100% PTC value and starting construction in 2016 will have until 2020 to be built. Applying the 4-year guidance, projects starting in 2017 will receive 80% value if completed by 2021, 60% value by starting in 2018 and completed by 2022, and 40% if starting in 2019 and completed by 2023.
The new 4-year window means that capacity additions will see less of a short-term spike and more of a smoothed out deployment cycle. Most wind plants don’t need 4 years for construction, so many will stick to shorter planned schedules. However, large offshore wind projects require longer construction timelines, and this new 4-year window could mean the difference between one or more large offshore projects proceeding that may not have before. For onshore wind, many developers will optimize their development cycles, turbine supply agreements, component transportation, and construction logistics to enable the most cost-effective and largest build cycle possible under these more flexible guidelines. For example, some developers may have a few foundations poured during the first year of construction at a site and turbines not installed until the fourthyear while development is prioritized elsewhere.