Wind power

Nothing the United States Congress does is simple, and the deal worked out last week to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ is no exception. Beyond extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the highest income Americans, the bill included a raft of other provisions affecting everything from tax policy, unemployment benefits and Medicare payments to milk subsidies and congressional pay. For all that, most of its components were actually welcome.

One aspect of the bill, however, was of particular importance both for Colorado and the nation’s energy economy. The extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy will preserve well-paying jobs, continue the development of a promising technology and help the United States on its way toward a cleaner, more energy self-sufficient future.

Getting the Production Tax Credit extended was a special project for Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. He took the Senate floor more than two dozen times to argue for it and has worked tirelessly on its behalf. His office says that as enacted it will:

Provide a tax credit for electricity actually produced, not for idle turbines.

Apply to projects begun before the end of 2013.

Also apply to other renewable energy sources such as geothermal and biomass.

The extension of the Production Tax Credit passed last week is only for one year. Nonetheless, the American Wind Energy Association says it will save as many as 37,000 jobs nationwide. More than 6,000 of those jobs are said to be in Colorado.

Nor are those jobs all in manufacturing and installing wind turbines. The giant turbines also need maintenance. That brings relatively high-tech work to the plains of Eastern Colorado where well-paying jobs have been otherwise scarce.

Critics decry the tax credit as a subsidy and, more trenchantly, as “picking winners and losers” in a manner that should be left for the market to decide. But that misses the point. Fostering the development of new technologies has long been an effective and often essential government function.

The private sector rarely builds airports and did not develop the nation’s air-traffic control system. It did not build the dams that supply the hydroelectric component of the U.S. electric grid.

The jet planes operated by the airlines, the Internet that Amazon relies on, the satellites that bring us television shows, movies and real-time news of the world were all first developed with government funding.

In other situations, private capital may have developed the technology, but the industries that followed depend on government-built infrastructure. The government did not create the first cars, but the auto industry (not to mention the trucking industry) would not be what it is without federally funded highways.

How much of that constitutes unwarranted subsidies can be argued. But to object that helping along a nascent technology amounts to interfering with the economy by “picking winners and losers” makes sense only on the lips of those backing the losers – in this case coal and oil.

Wind power is working. Among the states, Colorado now generates the third highest percentage of its electricity. The advocacy group Environment Colorado says nationwide wind now powers almost 13 million homes and reduces climate-changing pollutants as much as taking 525,000 cars off the road. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates wind power could supply a fifth of the country’s electricity by 2030.

In securing the Production Tax Credit, Udall had bipartisan support. But the senator deserves particular credit for his tenacious effort and leadership. This was a win for Colorado and its future.

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