Fact Checking Fossil Fuel Industry's Attacks on Wind Energy
It was only a matter of time before wind energy supporters fired back at the fossil fuel-funded Institute for Energy Research (IER) for releasing a report this week that was peppered with falsehoods.
It didn’t help that its sister organization, the American Energy Alliance, equated the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) as “welfare” in its promotion of the IER study.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)’s Elizabeth Salerno took a look at the study and found a few inaccuracies with IER’s claims. Comparing IER's addiction to "spreading misinformation" to a chain smoker, here are four points about wind energy Salerno believes were left out of the "Estimating the State-Level Impact of Federal Wind Energy Subsidies" report:
Using tax policy to spur growth in energy sectors is nothing new
It’s important to understand that there is no comprehensive energy policy in the U.S. The reality is that much of what the U.S. has relied on to spur domestic energy growth is a collection federal, state, and local public policy techniques, including the tax code.
A new report out earlier this year, “Energy tax policy: Issues in the 113th congress” by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) makes this point clear.
“Energy tax policy involves the use of one of the government’s main fiscal instruments, taxes (both as an incentive and as a disincentive) to alter the allocation or configuration of energy resources and their use," the report reads. "In theory, energy taxes and subsidies, like tax policy instruments in general, are intended either to correct a problem or distortion in the energy markets or to achieve some economic (efficiency, equity, or macroeconomic) objective.”
The truth is, tax incentives for the energy sector began in 1913, when intangible drilling costs were given to the oil industry and dozens have been added since then, most of which support fossil fuels. In fact, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s own tally concludes that federal subsidies to fossil and nuclear energy sources totaled more than $650 billion from 1950 to 2010. Despite their remarkably long life spans, such incentives are mostly ignored in the current energy debate.
And while other industries continue to receive tax incentives carrying an expensive price tag, the PTC more than pays for itself in local, state, and federal taxes over the life of wind power projects, according to a NextEra Energy analysis.
All 50 states benefit from wind power equipped with the PTC
IER’s report strategically ignores the NextEra analysis demonstrating that the PTC more than pays for itself, in addition to the sizable economic benefits wind power has produced in all 50 states.
Wind power generated $25 billion in private investment, paying millions to landowners and local communities. Every state in the union, including 70 percent of all U.S. congressional districts, has an operating wind project, manufacturing plant or wind-related jobs.
All Online Wind Energy-Related Manufacturing Facilities & Wind Energy Projects by Congressional District, 2012
Wind energy is one of the most broadly dispersed energy industries, with manufacturing currently in 44 states and turbines installed in 39 states plus Puerto Rico.
U.S. Wind Energy Capacity Installed, as of Q3, 2013
In fact, “Made in the USA” is now a label American wind power can proudly display on a majority (over 70 percent) of its parts and supplies.
U.S. Wind Energy-related Manufacturing Facilities, 2012
American wind power supports 80,000 full-time jobs and according to a Department of Energy analysis, with the right policies in place, wind power could support 500,000 full-time domestic jobs by 2030.
Wind energy brings taxes and other revenues to rural communities, benefiting county and local services, schools, and health care and public safety facilities. Plus, land lease payments to rural landowners, farmers, and ranchers hosting America’s new drought-resistant cash crop often total millions of dollars in states across the country.
Wind energy is reducing electricity prices across the country
More than a dozen studies by grid operators and state governments have confirmed that wind energy reduces electricity prices by displacing more expensive sources of energy. That includes a recent report by Synapse Energy Economics that found that doubling the use of wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lake states would save consumers $6.9 billion per year on net, after accounting for both wind and transmission costs.
Because the electric power system is a highly integrated network, many of these electricity price reduction benefits accrue to states that have little to no wind energy. For example, the Synapse study found that the $6.9 billion in benefits of wind energy would be broadly spread across the 13 Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states, even to states without wind energy, as wind plants allow fossil-fired power plants in other states to reduce their output and fuel use.
These interstate consumer benefits of wind energy are even more clear when utilities buy wind energy from other states. For example, Southern Company’s Georgia and Alabama utilities have made three large purchases of wind energy from Oklahoma and Kansas, explaining that those purchases reduce its customers’ electric bills.
Environmental benefits from wind power are also spread across all 50 states
Another goal of the PTC was to establish better U.S. energy security and address concerns about the environment. As the 2013 CRS report notes:
“The U.S energy tax policy as it presently stands aims to address concerns regarding the environment as well as those surrounding national security. Incentives promoting renewable energy production, energy efficiency and conservation, and alternative technology vehicles address both environmental and national security concerns. Tax incentives for the domestic production of fossil fuels also promote energy security by attempting to reduce the nation’s reliance on imported energy sources.”
Adding wind power displaces the most expensive, least efficient power source on the utility system—usually an older fossil fuel plant. The total wind power installed today now allows us to avoid the equivalent of 100 million metric tons of CO2 annually—the equivalent of taking over 17 million cars off the road.
Wind power uses no water to generate electricity, while most other types of power plants use substantial quantities. Installing over 60 gigawatts of wind power has resulted in saving the equivalent of 37 billion gallons of water annually. That’s 130 gallons of water per person.
Wind energy does not emit particulate matter, which is associated with heart and lung disease, and it also does not emit mercury or other heavy metals, which collect in the food chain and are harmful to human and animal health.
In fact, according to a report completed for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), wind power has the lowest impact on wildlife and the environment of any of several technologies studied – including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and hydropower.
The bipartisan support that the PTC has historically received has been a reflection of Congress understanding that the majority of American people want more wind energy. With all these economic and environmental benefits, it’s easy to understand why that overwhelming support exists.
IER’s best (worst) efforts will not change these facts.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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