The Big Push Answers from Wind Energy Advocate Greg Wetstone

Greg Wetstone is the senior director for government and public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Put simply, AWEA’s mission is to promote the use and growth of wind power by pushing for favorable legislation, reporting on successes and keeping the public informed.

E Magazine: The last few years have seen phenomenal growth for the wind industry. How has public policy played a role?

Greg Wetstone: We had stable federal incentives in place, which got a lot less stable toward the end of 2008, but fortunately we were able to renew them. Specifically, the production tax credits have enabled the wind industry to grow.

E: Why do wind and other forms of renewable energy need these incentives, with energy costs where they are today?

GW: Every form of electricity production has already enjoyed massive federal financial support. There are depletion allowances. There are all sorts of programs for nuclear. Gas, coal and oil all have permanent tax advantages. The hydro facilities were built by the federal government. In a way, we need these programs to avoid being disadvantaged by the tax structure and an array of programs, which in the absence of production tax credits are promoting virtually every other kind of energy but renewable energy.

E: What are your current goals?

GW: We have a very concrete place we’re trying to get to in terms of the growth of wind energy. That was captured in the May 2008 Department of Energy report that states that wind has the ability to produce 20% of the nation’s electricity by the year 2030. There are no technical obstacles, and it can clearly be done—but we need to take some steps to make it happen. And depending upon the rate at which those steps are taken, it can happen a lot quicker than 2030.

E: What are some of those steps?

GW: First of all, we need short-term incentives to keep wind growing during the next few years, midterm incentives so that we know the market is there in 10 years in order to promote investment in domestic manufacturing and jobs, and then the long-term incentive, which is climate legislation to ensure that carbon-free electricity is appropriately valued.

The short-term incentives are the production tax credits. We just got a one-year extension with the passage of the energy bill. In the next Congress, we’d like to see them extended for five years.

E: And for the midterm?

GW: We’re looking at two things. First is a national renewable electricity standard, where the portion of electricity produced by renewable energy has to reach a set percentage. These programs have already contributed greatly to growth of wind at the state level. In fact, 26 states already have national renewable electricity standards. We’re thinking of a standard on the order of 20-25%. These are market-based programs that allow trading so that if one state produces more electricity than it needs, it can trade or sell the credits with other states that need more. Alternatively, they can sell those electrons to states that need them. States can also choose to retire the credits as a way to contribute to the environment. One other mid-term goal is to address transmission issues. We need to be able to bring electrons from the windy parts of the country to the populated areas where we have the most electricity demand.

E: How is the existing grid inadequate?

GW: The grid is very vulcanized and decisions are made state by state. The big transmission structure was developed around coal and hydro for the most part. You can’t bring wind to where the transmission is. You have to bring the transmission to where the wind is. What we need is a green interstate transmission highway designed to maximize our ability to tap green energy in this country.

E: And the long-term?

GW: Climate change legislation and cap-and-trade legislation is critical for the long term. [A “cap” is a national limit on pollution that causes global warming; “trade” is a market that would create incentives for companies to reduce pollution.] This legislation would provide an appropriate value for producing carbon-free electricity. We need to put a price on carbon to provide that long-term incentive for moving away from energy sources that cause global warming toward approaches that do not use fuel, are produced domestically and don’t produce any pollution at all.