Navigant Research Blog

U.S. Wind Market Buffeted by Boom-Bust Cycles

Jesse Broehl — May 28, 2014

The wind energy market in the United States operates in a boom and bust environment that, this year, once again, highlights the absurdity of U.S. policies around clean energy – or the lack thereof.  The Production Tax Credit (PTC) and its accompanying Investment Tax Credit (ITC) are the central pillars of government support for the U.S. wind market.  The PTC provides $0.23/kWh for 10 years from project commissioning, while the ITC provides a roughly equivalent cash grant.  Both credits are worth approximately 30% of the full installed cost of a wind plant, although the PTC is more valuable in areas of high wind speed (more kilowatt-hours relative to installed cost).

Both of these incentives are currently expired.  And yet, the wind industry is booming, with as much as 13 GW in various stages of construction in over 20 states and over 95 projects.  This is the result of the PTC being enacted on January 1, 2013, for 1 year.  Special safe harbor guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows for wind plants that began construction during the enacted PTC to qualify, as long as developers either began construction in 2013 – the physical work test – or spent at least 5% of the project capital costs.  Projects that went either route then have 2 years to come online in order to qualify for the PTC or ITC.

Time Running Short

In an ideal scenario, the 13 GW of construction reportedly underway may come online by the end of the 2-year window ending December 31, 2015.  Navigant Research forecasts around 12 GW of the 13 GW will come online, roughly split between 2014 and 2015.  A few items of uncertainty around this build cycle are in play.  Around 9 GW of power purchase agreements (PPAs) were signed during 2013 and through 1Q 2014.  PPAs, in almost all cases, are essential for wind plants in the United States to secure financing.  That’s not to say a further 3 GW to 4 GW of PPAs cannot be signed for this build cycle, but time is running out.

Time is also running out for turbine purchases, with top executives of major turbine vendors saying that only a few months remain to secure turbines for end-2015 installation.  They also worry that many developers that started construction, but did not put down payments on turbines by the end of 2013, may ultimately not secure PPAs, turbines, financing, or qualify under the IRS safe harbor stipulations during this build cycle.

Start Up, Again

Would that be a disaster?  Not necessarily.  If just over 9 GW is commissioned between 2014 and 2015, that still represents a healthy baseline of wind installation.  But it shows again the inefficiency of the U.S. system of stop-start development cycles, driven by the federal government’s inability to provide the wind industry long-term stability.  Most tax and other subsidy incentives for the fossil fuel sectors are written into permanent tax law and do not require contentious re-authorizations from a dysfunctional Congress every 1 or 2 years.

The PTC doesn’t have to exist forever.  Wind is increasingly competitive with new national gas plants in windy areas of the country.  But for now, the PTC needs to be extended to continue wind’s momentum.  In the longer term, the PTC should be reduced in value in exchange for a long-term multiyear phaseout when gas prices have recovered to realistic and sustainable cost levels.  Otherwise, the insane and inefficient boom and bust cycles will continue.

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