Can fossil-fuel tax benefits boost the renewable energy industry?

(Photo by BBC World Service via Creative Commons)

(Photo by BBC World Service via Creative Commons)

Since the 1980s, U.S. oil and gas companies have benefited from a tax loophole big enough to build a pipeline through.

By organizing as a type of partnership instead of a corporation, companies that extract, process or transport “depletable” natural resources have been exempt from corporate income taxes.

That word — “depletable” — specifically excludes renewable energy, but a long-simmering effort to change that now appears to be gathering some steam in Washington.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill last year that would give wind, solar and other renewable projects the same tax benefit that fossil fuels have enjoyed for decades.

The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act has picked up bipartisan support, including Republicans from oil-rich states such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Ted Poe of Texas.

But the bill also finds itself going against broader political momentum in Congress to eliminate loopholes and exemptions in order to raise revenue and lower tax rates.

Leveling the playing field

The first master limited partnership, or MLP, was devised in 1981 by a Minneapolis drilling and exploration company, Apache Oil Corp., now based in Houston. The structure offered a way to sell publicly tradable stock without being taxed as a corporation.

The model quickly spread to other oil and gas firms, as well as other industries seeking the same tax advantages, including real estate, hotels and motels, and restaurants. By the time Congress intervened in 1987, even the Boston Celtics had formed an MLP.

Worried that too many corporations would become MLPs to avoid taxes, Congress prohibited them except for companies that earn 90 percent of their income from specific investment, real estate and natural resource activities, including oil and gas operations.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. It never made any sense why MLPs were available to them and not to us,” says Blake Nixon, president of Geronimo Wind, a Minnesota wind developer that has been lobbying for MLP changes since 2009.

Allowing renewable companies to organize as MLPs is among a handful of tax reforms the industry and its supporters say will help level the playing field with fossil fuels. Others include allowing them to organize as real estate investment trusts, or REITs, and letting renewable tax credits be claimed by more types of investors.

Need for financial innovation

Setting up renewable projects as MLPs would make it easier to sell shares to individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds. Widening the pool of potential investors would inject new competition, which could lower the cost of financing projects, and ultimately lower the cost of renewable power.

Currently, there are only about 20 large financial institutions that have large enough tax bills to claim the full value of federal credits awarded to renewable projects. Wind and solar developers that want to take advantage of the credits need to recruit one of these players to invest in every single project.

“They basically get to set terms,” says Nixon. “Because there’s so few of them, there’s very little flexibility in the terms and in the costs of the money. There’s very little competition among them to drive those costs down.”

Even though borrowing rates are at historic lows, these large renewable investors charge interest rates of 8 to 9 percent, after tax, per project, says Nixon, compared to 4 to 5 percent that’s common for MLPs.

As the cost of wind and solar technology has fallen, financing costs have stayed high and become a bigger share of overall project costs, says Felix Mormann, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami and a fellow at Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

“It’s time for us to complement ongoing technology innovation with critical financial innovation,” says Mormann.

Mormann co-authored a Brookings Institute report published in November called “Smarter Finance for Cleaner Energy: Open Up Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) to Renewable Energy Investment.”

Not a ‘magic potion’

MLPs aren’t a “magic potion,” however, warns Joe Condo, vice president and general counsel for Chicago renewable developer Invenergy, which has lobbied for MLP changes for several years.

“One concern we have is that some folks who support MLP are saying maybe this is a replacement for [production tax credits],” says Condo. “We don’t agree with that.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, agrees. In a 2011 policy brief it concluded, “Because MLP s would only increase the eligible investor pool … by themselves they would most likely not supplant the tax incentives currently in place.”

Coons’ bill is getting more attention than previous efforts to extend MLPs to renewables, but they’ve still been getting “a fair amount of pushback from Capitol Hill,” says Keith Martin, a lawyer and lobbyist with Washington, D.C., firm Chadbourne & Parke.

Martin is scheduled to speak about MLPs and REITs next week at the Wind Power Finance & Investment Summit in San Diego.

If the bill advances, it would likely move forward as part of a broader corporate tax reform bill that Congress is expected to take up either this year or next year, says Martin. Even if it succeeds, the impact could be muted if Congress decides to tax partnerships, as some have proposed.

Martin says both parties want to lower the current 35 percent corporate income tax rate. Democrats want to lower it to 28 percent and Republicans are aiming for 25 percent.

“It’s a monumental task to take the rate that low,” says Martin.

Adding exemptions will make it tougher. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated that extending MLPs to renewable energy firms would cost the U.S. Treasury about $2.8 billion between 2010 and 2014.

An alternative, that report suggests, if the goal is a level playing field: close the loophole for oil and gas companies.

Originally published January 29, 2013 at 05:00AM at Midwest Energy News

Beyond the reach of natural gas boom, Minnesota towns look to biomass

The hills above Grand Marais, Minnesota, with Lake Superior in the background. (Photo by Andy Tinkham via Creative Commons)

The hills above Grand Marais, Minnesota, with Lake Superior in the background. (Photo by Andy Tinkham via Creative Commons)

Cheap natural gas prices have pushed many biomass projects to the back burner in recent years, but it’s a different story in rural communities without access to pipelines.

In northern Minnesota, two towns are considering their next steps after preliminary studies showed that small, wood-burning district heating systems could have economic and environmental benefits — if they can find a way to finance the up-front construction costs.

Grand Marais, on the north shore of Lake Superior, and Ely, on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, currently rely on fuel oil or propane for heat.

“Up here, there’s no natural gas because there’s no pipeline. We live on solid rock, so everything is trucked into the community,” says Paul Nelson, chairman of the Cook County Biomass Working Group in Grand Marais.

Meanwhile, both towns are surrounded by aging forests that could provide more than enough sustainably harvested wood to power a community-scale district heating plant, according to an analysis by Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis environmental nonprofit.

Origins in fire safety

Grand Marais’ biomass project grew out of a local forest fire safety effort. The Firewise campaign encourages homeowners to regularly clear brush as a way to protect their homes from encroaching flames. The result: “mountains” of sticks and leaves that are dropped off at designated gravel pits for burning on days when the fire risk is low.

It seemed like a waste to Nelson and others, who began promoting the idea of a community biomass plant. Voters approved a 1 percent county sales tax in 2009 that authorized the county board to spend the revenue on, among other things, feasibility and design studies for a district heating plant in Grand Marais.

Around the same time, the Ely Alternative Energy Task Force began investigating the potential for biomass heating there. It’s since focused on two possible projects, one at the local community college and another that could heat the hospital, school district, and possibly extend to some larger business customers, too.

A new state-funded analysis by Dovetail Partners examined economic, environmental and fuel supply issues for multiple options in Ely and Grand Marais.

“There are a range of biomass energy system sizes and types that could be used in northern Minnesota, and district heating systems appear to make financial sense for many communities in this region,” the report concludes.

Besides the lack of competition from natural gas, another reason biomass district heating shows promise is technological improvements that have made smaller scale systems cleaner and more economical, says Kathryn Fernholz, Dovetail’s executive director.

“The technology has come a long ways, even from ten or 15 years ago,” says Fernholz. “People who think back to the energy crisis of the 1970s and the wood stoves — forget it. That is ancient history compared to what we’re talking about now in terms of the efficiency and the low emissions of these systems.”

The latest estimates for capital costs range from $1.9 million to $16.9 million in Ely, depending on the scale of the system, and between $995,000 and $11.8 million in Grand Marais. Fernholz said both towns could likely design projects with simple payback periods in the range of five to ten years.

‘We’ve got biomass coming out of our ears’

The piles of brush gathered from people’s yards wouldn’t be enough to power a heating plant, says Nelson, but backers in Grand Marais have found another plentiful source: over-aged aspen, which needs to be removed to make the forests healthier.

“We have an unending supply [of aspen], so the price on that would be very stable over the long term,” says Nelson.

Dovetail’s fuel supply analysis showed both communities would have more than enough fuel using only the tops of limbs from trees that are already harvested within a 60-mile radius. The tree tops go into a fuel known as hog fuel, a blend of bark, leaves, and branches that aren’t used by paper or lumber industries.

“We’ve got biomass coming out of our ears out there,” says Dave Olsen, a member of the Ely Alternative Energy Task Force. “We want to use the junk that the Forest Service and others are just having to burn in the woods to get rid of it.”

The next step in both towns is coming up with a specific business plan that outlines who will own the facilities, who the customers will be, and how much they’ll pay.

“Until we can tell them exactly what it’s going to cost, they really can’t commit,” says Olsen.

In Ely, the community college is considering whether to re-start a mothballed biomass burner on its campus. The other facility could be built as a cooperative, says Olsen. Other options might include the hospital owning it and selling heat to the school district, or those two users could jointly build and operate it.

In Grand Marais, the city’s public utilities commission is open to the idea of operating the plant. Before the city would issue revenue bonds for the project, though, it would need commitments from prospective customers that they planned to buy heat from the municipal utility instead of continuing to use their existing propane or fuel oil heaters.

“To me, it makes great sense, and it looks as if the economic analysis pencils out,” says Karl Hansen, chairman of the Grand Marais Public Utilities Commission. ”I think the sentiment of the PUC is to certainly do whatever we can to support this.”

Originally published January 15, 2013 at 05:00AM at Midwest Energy News

In Minnesota, solar tops clean energy agenda

A solar array at a farm in central Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

A solar array at a farm in central Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

This could be the year major solar legislation sees the light of day in Minnesota.

A Democratic sweep in November has clean energy advocates optimistic about their causes following two years of legislative control by conservative Republicans.

The top priority on their agenda: a bill that would require Minnesota utilities to generate a tenth of their electricity from solar by the year 2030.

“Our top energy priority is the 10 percent solar standard,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of more than 75 environmental and conservation groups.

“We have a tremendous untapped resource, and we have the stars aligned to make major headway in ramping up our solar distributed generation here in the state,” Morse said.

The Minnesota Solar Energy Act [PDF] was first introduced in May 2011 by Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, and Rep. Kate Knuth, D-New Brighton.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Center, chair of the House Energy Policy committee, will carry the bill as lead author in the House this year in place of Knuth, who did not seek reelection.

The act would supplement the state’s existing 25 percent by 2025 renewable electricity standard, which has primarily been met by large-scale wind farms.

It’s among a handful of ideas being discussed to give solar power the kind of policy boost that wind energy has received in the state for the last two decades.

“I know it’s a long process and you never know what’s going to come out of the meat grinder at the end of the day, but I will be very shocked if we don’t pass significant solar legislation this year,” said Ken Bradley, chair of the Solar Works for Minnesota coalition, which has led the charge for the 10-percent solar mandate.

Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News, is a member of both the MEP and the Solar Works for Minnesota coalition.

What’s in the bill

Bradley said the coalition of supporters backing the bill, especially among unions and businesses, is stronger than the one that helped push through the state’s 2007 renewable energy standard.

As it’s written, the solar standard would be phased in more slowly than the renewable standard. Utilities would be required to get just 2 percent of electricity from solar by 2022, with the remaining 8 percent coming between then and 2030.

The proposal calls for using a “buy all, sell all” model for utility integration. Solar system owners would sell all of the power they generate to their utility, which would credit the amount towards the customer’s electric bill.

The rate utilities pay for solar power would be set by the state’s energy office using a valuation formula laid out in the legislation. The price would attempt to reflect the value of the electricity as well as solar’s benefits to the grid and the environment.

The cost to residential ratepayers would be in the “tens of cents” per month for the first several years and increase to about $1 per month during later years, Bradley said — small, he argued, compared to the $9 monthly rate increase Xcel is asking for to cover nuclear repairs and upgrades.

‘What is the right policy mechanism?’

Bradley said he hasn’t received any indication of hesitation from legislative leaders, and the bill’s House author is also chair of the committee from which the bill will need to pass.

“We’re definitely going to talk about [the solar standard],” Rep. Hortman said.

But she also said she’s keeping an open mind about whether it is the best way to boost solar installations in the state.

“The question is: what is the right policy mechanism to incentivize growth in solar in Minnesota? It may be we do a 10 percent by 2030 mandate, and that may be the way we choose to stimulate the market and send a signal, but that might not be the most effective method right now.”

Solar lobbyists are hoping for a mix of policies and incentives that can put solar on a stable growth path in the state — which the industry is more in need of since Xcel Energy’s decision last year to end its solar rebate program after 2015.

“One major push will be to find an alternative source of funding for solar financing incentives in Minnesota,” said Bob Long, a lobbyist with Larkin Hoffman who represents two Minnesota solar manufacturers, tenKsolar and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.

Long said one idea that’s been discussed in the weeks leading up to session was letting solar projects tap into financing from the state’s Renewable Development Fund, which has supported wind farms since the mid-1990s.

Other energy issues

Other parts of the legislature’s energy agenda are still coming together. Hortman and her counterpart in the Senate, John Marty, D-Roseville, said last week they were still meeting committee members and hadn’t seen specific legislation yet.

There’s talk about amending the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing law to extend the maximum payback time to 20 years from 10 years, which would help more industrial efficiency projects qualify.

Transit funding and electric vehicle infrastructure may come up in transportation committees. An energy storage standard may be introduced, Long said, though it doesn’t have the momentum of the solar standard bill.

Marty, chair of the Senate Environment and Energy committee, said he wants to review the legislature’s 2007 accomplishments, which included the renewable standard and an efficiency mandate, and have a discussion about what comes next.

“We’re trying to make our energy system sustainable for the long run, in a way that works for people,” Marty said. “I think now is the time when, in a very thoughtful matter, we take a serious look what’s going on, what we should be changing, and how we change it as aggressively as we can.”

Originally published January 09, 2013 at 05:00AM at Midwest Energy News

Analysis: Politics drown out facts following Wisconsin wind noise study

Five acousticians from four consulting firms were hired to gather noise data from the Shirley wind farm in Wisconsin. (Photo via Wisconsin PSC)

Five acousticians from four consulting firms were hired to gather noise data from the Shirley wind farm in Wisconsin. (Photo via Wisconsin PSC)

Is a recent Wisconsin study the smoking gun that proves wind turbine noise causes health problems?

It depends on whom you ask, and more importantly, whether that person is qualified to answer the question.

One month ago, five sound experts set up recording equipment at three homes near a Wisconsin wind farm that had been abandoned by their occupants, who blame the turbines for a variety of health issues.

Over the course of a few days, microphones picked up inaudible, low-frequency turbine noise in the home nearest to the turbines. The subsequent report prompted state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, to call for an emergency moratorium on wind permits in the state, saying the analysis proves wind farms produce “dangerous” infrasound levels.

“These results compel them to act immediately to keep this nightmare from spreading,” Jacque told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

However, whether turbine noise is to blame for nausea, headaches and other symptoms was well beyond the limited scope of the three-day field study, which acknowledges the issue as “serious” and “possibly affecting the future of the industry,” but calls for further research into the matter.

Testing claims

The study was intended to help inform Wisconsin’s ongoing debate over wind turbine siting. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission hired Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, to review the proposed Highlands wind farm in St. Croix County, in western Wisconsin (Clean Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News).

During hearings for that project, opponents introduced witnesses who testified about suffering adverse health effects from living near the Shirley wind farm, southeast of Green Bay, forcing them to eventually abandon their homes near the project.

A sound expert hired by Clean Wisconsin proposed a sound-measurement survey in the abandoned homes to get a better understanding of the noise levels, particularly infrasound and low-frequency noise.

The utilities commission authorized funding for the study, and the homeowners agreed to let Clean Wisconsin’s acoustician into their homes to collect the measurements.

At the last moment, however, the three homeowners rescinded their invitation because an expert representing their view wasn’t invited to attend the survey.

Clean Wisconsin retooled and rescheduled the study, inviting four separate acoustics consulting firms to participate, including one, Rand Acoustics, that is often hired by wind farm opponents.

What they heard

The group spent three days going from house to house listening for sound as well as using highly sensitive microphones and other equipment to detect sound inaudible to the human ear.

All five consultants (one of the firms had two acousticians present) could hear turbine noise when standing outside the homes located 1,300 feet and 3,330 feet from the nearest turbines. Only one, Robert Rand of Rand Acoustics, said he could hear noise outside the third residence, 7,100 feet from the nearest turbine.

Rand was also the only one who said he could hear turbine noise inside the homes. He said sound was audible in all three homes, while only one of the other consultants, David Hessler, said he could faintly detect noise inside the nearest home.

Infrasound and low-frequency noise, which occur naturally and are always present in some level, were detected in all three of the homes, but could only be matched to turbine noise in the home closest to the wind farm.

In the other two homes, the noise inside the house didn’t match the profile of an outdoor microphone well enough to rule out other sources as the cause of the noise.


Each of the acoustics firms was given an opportunity to interpret the results, but all four agreed on the conclusions and recommendations in an eight-page consensus report.

The effort was a “good start in quantifying low frequency and infrasound from wind turbines,” the sound experts’ consensus conclusion begins. But it was also a very limited study with some significant shortcomings.

The group strongly recommended more testing at the Shirley wind farm. Research could produce better results with more time and equipment, as well as cooperation from the wind farm’s owner, Duke Energy.

Duke Energy declined the researchers’ request to periodically turn their turbines off and on so they could measure noise levels with and without the turbine blades spinning, leaving it an experiment without a control.

“An important finding on this survey was that the cooperation of the wind farm operator is absolutely essential,” the report said.

Health issues

The issue of how infrasound and low-frequency noise affects physical health does come up in the report, though the consensus report underscores the scientific uncertainty about the link.

“The issue is complex and relatively new. Such reported adverse response is sparse or non-existent in the peer-reviewed literature,” it says.

The report adds to the body of anecdotal evidence in an appendix by Rand, who says he “is prone to seasickness” and personally experienced nausea, headaches, dizziness and other symptoms during the sound recording. He also interviewed the homeowners about their symptoms.

Rand, in a section not endorsed by the other consultants, says the illness experienced by himself and others near wind turbines may be a form of motion sickness caused by the low frequencies.

Another of the researchers, Paul Schomer, also suggests that low-frequency vibrations from the turbines could cause nausea and other symptoms by putting pressure on the ear canal, but cautions “that the wind turbines make people sick is difficult to prove or disprove.”

Bruce Walker of Channel Island Acoustics reminds readers in his notes that the study was conducted by acousticians, not doctors.

“The author is not qualified to make judgments regarding human response to normally subliminal sources of acoustic excitation,” Walker wrote.

The other two consulting firms note that they have measured infrasound levels at other wind farms “that substantially exceed those measured here and to the best of their knowledge there are no reported adverse effects for noise or adverse health issues.”

The few anecdotes included in Rand’s appendix neither prove or disprove that infrasound or low-frequency noise can make people sick. They also don’t change the current scientific consensus on the topic, says Tyson Cook, staff scientist for Clean Wisconsin.

“When it comes to wind turbines in particular, there is no evidence of that happening.”

Originally published January 08, 2013 at 05:00AM at Midwest Energy News

Utilities eye greater role in building codes

(Photo by jongrant33 via Creative Commons)

Building inspectors could soon have a new ally to assist with code enforcement: the local utility.

With several states adopting new energy codes at a time when cash-strapped building departments are already spread thin, there’s concern that lack of funding for training and enforcement could cause compliance to lag.

Meanwhile, many utilities are looking for new ways to spend ratepayer conservation dollars — and meet mandatory energy efficiency goals, which are increasing in some states just as the savings utilities can claim from lighting programs is shrinking.

Those forces have put growing momentum behind an idea to give utilities a bigger role in building code implementation in exchange for credit towards their energy efficiency targets.

“It’s a very complimentary marriage that occurs here,” says Isaac Elnecave, a senior policy manager for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA), a Chicago nonprofit that is leading a discussion of utility-supported code programs in Illinois.

Illinois is likely to see its first building code program proposals from utilities next fall. In Minnesota, a study of potential program options is underway, and the concept has also surfaced in Iowa, Ohio and Michigan.

Low compliance

Building codes can be a very effective tool for reducing energy use, but they’re not a magic wand. Compliance varies from state to state, but the few available studies “point to low compliance in most jurisdictions, substantially below 100 percent,” according to a recent paper from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The MEEA and ACEEE are both members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

One recent study estimated that under-compliance with New York building codes cost property owners in the state $1.3 billion in lost energy savings over a five year period.

Elnecave says several factors are to blame for that compliance gap. One big one is that local code agencies are often underfunded. While states often adopt building codes, it’s usually up to local building departments to enforce them. Revenue from construction permit fees has fallen off since the real estate bubble burst, leaving the departments with less money.

Understandably, says Elnecave, inspectors put health and safety issues first and get to energy efficiency when they can.

“It’s not that they don’t want to or aren’t trying,” says Elnecave.

While city inspection budgets have been shrinking, utility conservation budgets have been growing. Midwest utilities spent about $1.2 billion on energy conservation programs in 2012. That figure is expected to grow to $1.7 billion by 2015 as states ramp up their energy efficiency requirements.

Filling in gaps

Elnecave and other efficiency boosters would like to see some of that utility money used to help make sure energy codes don’t get lost on building inspectors’ long priority lists.

One idea is for utilities to pay for training programs for architects, builders and code officials, starting with a general overview and following up with more focused sessions on particular sections of the code.

Another concept is for utilities to fund a “circuit rider program,” in which a handful of inspectors could be trained as energy code experts, then embed with local building departments on a rotating basis.

The most ambitious model the Alliance is working on would involve utilities funding the creation of a new third-party review and inspection system, which would accredit independent inspectors who could be called on by local governments or builders for assistance.

“A building department could continue to focus on health and safety, but there would be somebody who would focus on the energy code,” says Elnecave

Minnesota study

Talks are also happening in Minnesota, where Xcel Energy is leading a statewide effort with energy regulators and other utilities to develop code programs for utilities there.

“We’re looking to save energy, cost-effectively, for our rate payers,” says Kevin Schwain, Xcel’s manager of emerging customer programs. “There’s a lot of interest and belief that this can be one of those sources of energy savings.”

Schwain says there’s a sense that code compliance is higher in the Midwest than other states. If it’s too high already, that might mean there isn’t enough opportunity for utilities to help boost compliance. A study in early 2013 will try to better pinpoint compliance and where the gaps are.

Xcel already has pilot program in Colorado in which it’s offering targeted training programs on parts of the state’s energy code where compliance was identified as low.

Schwain says the utility likely wouldn’t propose a code program in Minnesota until 2014 so that it has time to build consensus around how to measure and award credit for energy savings.

Not just fluff

Measuring and attributing energy savings will be among the fundamental questions regulators have to answer about code-related conservation programs, according to ACEEE, which published a paper on the topic last month.

“[M]ethods for evaluating and estimating energy savings from these efforts remains a ‘work in progress,’” the paper said. “This lack of a well-established and accepted evaluation and measurement framework contributes to the hesitancy of regulators.”

But Elnecave says that methods do exist. A study first needs to determine existing compliance with the code; not just what percentage of buildings fully comply or not, but how close they are to compliance in several specific categories, such as insulation or ventilation. A follow-up study after the training or other intervention could then give analysts enough data to estimate energy savings attributable to the utility program.

Marty Kushler, one of the authors of the ACEEE report, said utilities should have to meet a high bar to prove their actions had an impact.

“It’s important that what’s being proposed is real and not just fluff. I think there are some ways to get at some real contributions,” says Kushler.

Originally published January 02, 2013 at 05:00AM at Midwest Energy News