Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Answer Is Not Blowin' In The Wind

When it comes to opining on energy policy, Robert Bryce is one of the most rational, realistic voices out there. He knows what's economically feasible, what's not, and why. In today's WSJ, he writes that dreams of wind power as the answer to America's energy needs have instead become the latest "green" power Boonedoggle:

Alas, market forces ruined the Pickens Plan. Mr. Pickens should have shorted wind. Instead, he went long and now he's stuck holding a slew of turbines he can't use because low natural gas prices have made wind energy uneconomic in the U.S., despite federal subsidies that amount to $6.44 for every 1 million British thermal units (BTUs) produced by wind turbines. As the former corporate raider explained a few days ago, growth in the wind energy industry "just isn't gonna happen" if natural gas prices remain depressed.

In 2008, shortly after he launched his plan, Mr. Pickens said that for wind energy to be competitive, natural gas prices must be at least $9 per million BTUs. In March of this year, he was still hawking wind energy, but he'd lowered his price threshold, saying "The place where it works best is with natural gas at $7."

That may be true. But on the spot market natural gas now sells for about $4 per million BTUs. In other words, the free-market price for natural gas is about two-thirds of the subsidy given to wind. Yet wind energy still isn't competitive in the open market.

Despite wind's lousy economics, the lame duck Congress recently passed a one-year extension of the investment tax credit for renewable energy projects. That might save a few "green" jobs.

But at the same time that Congress was voting to continue the wind subsidies, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reported that property tax breaks for wind projects in the Lone Star State cost nearly $1.6 million per job. That green job ripoff is happening in Texas, America's biggest natural gas producer.

The lesson here is that alternative energy sources will become feasible when the markets' supply and demand makes them so. Until then, efforts by the government to artificially support them through subsidies are about as effective as pissing in the wind.