It's an ill wind that blows in the U.S. Senate.
It can't muster enough votes to pass an extension of the wind energy production tax credit that's set to expire at the end of the year. Last week, senators deadlocked at 49-49, 11 votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority.
The credit has helped generate an average of about $18 billion in private investment in domestic wind power over the last few years. In Montana, it's been crucial to the state developing its wind power capacity from a single megawatt in 2004 to nearly 400 megawatts today.
Even oil giant BP came out this week in support of the extension, with its alternative energy director saying that the incentive is "genuinely working" and that the uncertainty is putting wind energy projects on ice and leaving turbine-manufacturing plants idling.
Why the impasse? Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, charges that Republicans are withholding support so they can use the extension as a bargaining chip when they debate the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
Apparently, those Republicans are fine gambling with tens of thousands of jobs and a rapidly growing clean-energy industry for a chance at keeping tax rates low on the rich. Of course, this doesn't surprise. Such polarization and dysfunction is why recent polls show that about 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the way our representatives are doing their jobs.
But you know what? In Montana, the tax credit extension may not make much of a difference. Even with it, our wind industry apparently has reached a plateau.
"It just can't be boiled down to whether or not the production tax credit is extended," says John Vincent of Montana's Public Service Commission. "Even if it is, unless there's demand—unless there's a market for the energy, regardless of its source—you're going to see a reduction in new plants."
Vincent points out that energy oversupply issues in the Pacific Northwest forced Bonneville Power Administration to curtail 350 megawatts of wind energy generation last spring.
Montana ranks third in the country in wind energy potential. But we don't have the transmission lines to get the power to markets that need it. And even if we did, we have a geographic disadvantage. Even Idaho is outpacing Montana in producing wind power for large markets.
But wait: What if we could ship all our wind power to China...?