The legislative effort to renew the expired wind energy tax credits took a big step this week in Congress as supporters of wind energy secured a 2-year extension of the wind credits. The Senate Finance Committee voted 23 to 3 to extend roughly $95 billion in 52 tax breaks for various industries and interests, including wind.
The Production Tax Credit (PTC) provides $0.023/kWh in tax credits for a 10-year duration to wind plant owners. A 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is also included as an alternative. Both are comparable in value, offsetting around 30% of the installed cost of a wind plant.
The package also includes a 2-year extension of the 50% bonus depreciation, which allows an owner in a new wind plant to deduct 50% of the tax basis in wind turbine capital costs and depreciate the other 50% over the normal depreciation period. The PTC/ITC extension also includes geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, and ocean energy projects. Notably, solar energy was excluded from the package, but intense lobbying is underway from that industry to get it included.
The tax credits for wind, which expired in 2014, must be renewed to prevent the U.S. wind market from collapsing, as it does from time to time when Congress fails to renew them. The wind industry is currently in a build cycle, with over 8,600 MW expected to be brought online this year of more than 13,600 MW under construction. This momentum, however, is riding on special start construction and other safe-harbor regulations provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that allows wind plants to qualify for the tax credits if construction is finished by the end of 2016.
The new 2-year extension would re-enact the PTC and ITC for a 2-year period through the end of 2016, and wind projects would have to begin construction during this 2-year window to be eligible. IRS guidance to the wind industry in recent years has allowed a 2-year window for wind plants to be built, and this is expected to be applied to this new extension. In practice, new wind plants that meet IRS guidelines for either starting construction or meeting other safe-harbor regulations will have 2 years to finalize construction. The ultimate result would be securing stable wind turbine installations in the United States from now through 2018.
Promising but Uncertain
The path forward for these tax extenders to be signed into law is promising but uncertain. It is promising because the wind industry tax credits on their own could be a hard sell in today’s polarized Congress, but when rolled into a larger package that appeases broad industry interests, Congress is more likely to approve the package. Also, the well-known but not well publicized reality in the wind industry is that most U.S. wind plants are majority owned by so-called tax equity financial firms, usually large banks, all of whom have the large tax bills necessary to fully monetize the tax credits. These companies have enormous lobbying power that can help get their interests over the finishing line.
Passage by the full Senate is required, plus a reconciliation with a House version of the bill that has yet to emerge. Importantly, lawmakers are moving ahead with this extenders package now instead of the end of the year when a last minute rush can doom even the most straight-forward and uncontentious legislation. Allowing the extender effort to fall into next year would be even worse, as the effort would become entangled and politicized by the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. All eyes in the wind industry will be on this effort going forward.