Advocates say wind energy can boost rural economies

As they push for extension of an expiring wind power tax credit, its proponents  are emphasizing its benefits to rural communities, in hopes of appealing to conservatives skeptical of government support for alternative energy.

“What we have to do is reframe wind development in a way that conservative lawmakers can embrace, focusing on the energy security and economic development it brings,” said Jeff Clark, the executive director of The Wind Coalition, a public policy group focused on wind issues. He spoke last week at the American Wind Energy Association’s regional summit in Houston.

The wind tax credit is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and a group of lawmakers is trying to add a one-year extension of the credit to a budget deal aimed at avoiding tax hikes and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.

Wind power makes up about 3 percent of the nation’s total energy, and 23 percent of all renewable energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Critics of the wind production tax credit argue that it artificially supports an industry that produces overpriced and intermittent power.

Steve Gaw, a Missouri-based policy director for The Wind Coalition, said that rural communities in Missouri have supported wind energy because it provides additional income for farmers – who lease their land for turbines – and allows young people who might otherwise leave the area to find employment  in the community.

“Most of the conservative support for the wind movement has come from rural areas,” said Shawn Lepard, an Oklahoma a public policy consultant on wind energy issues.

One criticism of wind is that because it is intermittent, power generated by natural gas, coal or nuclear plants must be available when wind is insufficient to meet power demand.

At the pro-wind event last week, however, panelists argued that while wind energy may require backup, the presence of the renewable could mitigate the effects of price swings for fossil fuels.

“For functionality of the grid, wind and natural gas are terrific partners,” Gaw said.

“If natural gas stays at a low price, wind is challenged because of that fuel price. But I went through what happened when gas prices went through the roof. The prices for gas and heating were painful.”

Clark also noted that Texas already is investing $6.8 billion to build transmission lines to carry wind power from West Texas to more populated areas.

“In Texas, the most conservative thing we can do is stay the course,” Clark said. “We are going to have to pay for that transmission anyway.  I have no doubt it will be used.”