Renewables leaders: Thousands of jobs lost if federal incentive expires

Wind and solar power industry leaders on Wednesday scrambled to convince Congress to renew a federal grant program credited with jump-starting renewable power projects nationwide.

The incentive program is set to expire at the end of the month unless Congress acts — but the odds of that happening narrowed when the initiative was left out of a tax cut package developed by the Obama administration and congressional Republicans.

Under the grant program, companies can nab direct cash payments from the Treasury Department that cover up to 30 percent of the cost of qualified renewable projects. The initiative was created as part of last year’s stimulus package in response to concerns that the economic downturn had caused traditional renewable-energy financing tied to investment and production tax credits to dry up.

Because that financing market hasn’t rebounded, the incentive program is “the most important policy for continued growth of the renewable energy industry in the United States,” Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a conference call with reporters.

Tens of thousands of jobs tied to the construction of wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal operations financed by the incentive program hang in the balance, Resch said.

In Texas alone — the nation’s leader for wind power generation — more than 3,000 jobs on new projects are threatened, said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.

“Without continuation of this policy, we will absolutely have layoffs ahead,” Bode said.

Faced with the program’s possible demise, renewable-energy executives are making personal pleas to lawmakers, and industry lobbyists are circulating on Capitol Hill with fact sheets that show what projects are benefiting in every state.

“We’ve pretty much dropped everything as an industry” to fight for the program, Resch said, adding: “It really is an all-out effort.”

If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the grant program, it would mean a second blow to the renewables  sector, which already failed this year to convince lawmakers to pass a federal law mandating that utilities derive more of their electricity from the wind, sun and other easily replenished sources. That would have helped drive demand for the industry and helped it compete with lower-cost power sources, such as natural gas.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the head of the Senate Finance Committee, had advanced a proposal to extend the program for one year, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion. But it was left out of the tax cut plan developed by the White House earlier this week.

That package would temporarily renew Bush-era tax cuts, in exchange for extending unemployment benefits and some tax provisions aimed at middle- and low-income households.

“It’s great that the administration and Congress is supporting additional unemployment benefits, but unfortunately many people currently employed by the (renewable power industry) will be standing in line applying for those benefits,” if the grant program isn’t renewed, Resch said.

The renewable grant program faces opposition from some lawmakers who are reluctant to reauthorize any initiatives borne out of the $789 billion stimulus package.

Some Republican lawmakers also have complained that renewable-energy spending props up an industry that could not survive on its own and otherwise can’t compete with oil, gas and coal.

(Photo: Fotolia)