Did Obama Spend $90 Billion on Green Energy?

Guest Blog | October 4, 2012 | Energy Policy
Source: The White House

UPDATE: In the Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, the topic on green energy was raised again. Paul Ryan said, “Was it a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on electric cars in Finland, or on windmills in China?” He was referencing money spent from the stimulus (ARRA) funding; however, it never happened. Sarah Palin began this false assertion back in 2010. In 2012, the Romney campaign created an attack ad asserting the same line that Sarah Palin used. In both cases, PolitiFact rated the claim as some form of FALSE. The Romney campaign has since removed their attack ad from YouTube. 

In last night’s presidential debate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney attacked President Barack Obama’s record on green energy. Romney said: “The Department of Energy has said the tax breaks for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year, and it’s actually an accounting treatment that, as you know, has been in place for 100 years…In one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks, to the green energy world.” Romney continued, “You put $90 billion, like 50 years worth of breaks, into solar and wind. To Solyndra, and Fisker, and Tesla and EnerOne.” In reality, the wind industry receives fewer federal incentives than the oil industry. Renewables as a whole receive fewer subsidies than the fossil fuel industry.  And while the wind industry thrives because of federal incentives, oil subsidies do little to nothing to increase production.

Of that $90 billion (see chart), only $21 billion was actually set aside solely for “green”, renewable energy. Most of the other applications don’t really count as “green energy” – batteries can be charged by coal power, the grid can transport nuclear electrons, high speed trains can run off oil (diesel), etcetera.

In some cases, the remaining renewable energy funds are spread out over nearly a decade. For example, in the stimulus bill, the Production Tax Credit (PTC) was extended from 2009-2012 – so a wind farm that is built this year will receive the PTC credits until about 2021. Since 2009, over 15,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity have been installed across the U.S. – largely due to the federal incentives. Over the past five years, wind energy incentives helped generate about $15 billion in private investment annually.

It’s a bit ironic that Governor Romney’s opposition to “green energy” hit its peak at a presidential debate in Colorado. The state generates about 9% of all its electricity from wind power – the sixth highest level in the country. Approximately 3,000 people are employed in the wind industry manufacturing sector in the state. Colorado is also home to the National Renewable Energy Lab – a venerable research hub for all sorts of clean energy technology. Colorado is a perfect example of what this country can do with renewable energy so long as we prioritize our expenditures.

The PTC has enjoyed broad bi-partisan support for much of the past decade; however, the PTC is due to expire at the end of this year, and Governor Romney has expressed interested in eliminating the credit altogether. A two-year extension of the PTC could cost $3.3 billion; taken over ten years, that means the annual cost for a two year extension could be about $330 million annually – about a tenth as much as the oil industry is guaranteed to receive annually.

So while Obama didn’t put $90 billion into green energy in one year (or even ten years), perhaps this country should reevaluate and increase renewable energy’s prioritization when it comes to our energy investments.

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