Clean energy attacker Robert Bryce flunks energy incentive math test

Special interest-funded Robert Bryce continues his mathematically-challenged attacks on clean energy. In his latest assault, he broke his own record for false claims by getting the math wrong by a factor of more than 750.

Bryce miscalculates incentives for wind energy

This week, Bryce produced a grossly inflated number for the amount of government incentives awarded to wind companies by including hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives that have nothing to do with wind energy. He even counts many incentives that were awarded to competing fossil and nuclear energy sources, confirming our point that wind receives a small share of total government incentives.

Bryce’s trick is looking up large and diversified companies that conduct some business in the wind industry, and then incorrectly assuming that all incentives awarded to those diversified companies were actually given to the wind industry. Despite clear line-item labeling that indicates 99.9 percent of the incentives listed in his source dataset have nothing to do with wind energy, Bryce repeatedly lumps all of the incentives received by those companies as being “provided to the wind-energy sector.”

More than 99 percent of the total incentives on Bryce’s list go to large household names like General Electric, Warren Buffett and Siemens. Despite it being common knowledge that those companies do things besides building and installing wind turbines, Bryce assumes all incentives awarded to those companies went to the wind industry. Even a cursory look at the detailed dataset Bryce relied on indicates that almost all of these incentives went for activities as diverse as food product manufacturing, international water projects, insurance companies and other activities clearly unrelated to wind energy.

For example, Bryce focuses heavily on General Electric, which according to his math accounts for over 90 percent of the incentives awarded to non-banking companies in the wind energy sector. However, wind-related incentives account for less than 1/20,000th of the total incentives listed for the highly diversified General Electric. For other companies on Bryce’s list, none of their incentives actually went to the wind industry.

Going through the line-item data on incentives for all non-banking companies on Bryce’s list reveals that Bryce overstated actual incentives for wind energy by a factor of 27, an overstatement of a whopping $170 billion. If one includes the banking companies on Bryce’s list that also conduct some activity in the wind industry, Bryce’s overstatement grows to a factor of 784.

Setting aside the fact that 99.9% of the expenses included in Bryce’s tally have nothing to do with wind, it should also be pointed out that 93% of the expenses included in Bryce’s tally are loan guarantees. Bryce misleadingly counts the entire value of the loan in his incentive cost figures. That’s like saying the loan you took out to buy your house was a gift from the bank, a claim your bank (and the courts) would strongly disagree with.

In reality the actual cost of a loan guarantee to the government is less than one percent of the loan value, as the loan must be repaid with interest, so the only real cost to the government is a slight assumption of risk. In nearly all cases, and all cases of wind project loan guarantees that I am are aware of, the loans are being repaid in full. After factoring in the interest payments, these loans are likely providing a net benefit to the government. So at most the cost of loan guarantees should be reduced to less than one percent of the cost Bryce assigns, and a fairer assessment of the cost to the government would likely be closer to zero if not negative.

Bryce also makes a math error in his spreadsheet, double counting all incentives for one company, which causes him to overstate what he falsely claims are incentives to foreign companies by a whopping $734 million.

Amusingly, Bryce’s list of supposed “wind incentives” includes large incentives for non-renewable energy sources, including $492 million for a single coal power plant, and hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear and other fossil fuel spending. Bryce’s data therefore confirm the point we’ve made many times previously in response to his misleading attacks on wind’s incentives: wind energy accounts for a small share of total government incentives for the energy sector.

The facts about energy incentives

As we’ve noted previously, data compiled by the nuclear industry and others confirm that wind energy accounts for an extremely small share of total government incentives for energy. Specifically, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) tallies $594 billion in government subsidies for fossil fuels over the last 60 years alone, and $73 billion for the nuclear industry. NEI counts $81 billion in total cumulative incentives for renewable resources over that time period, though only a small share of that has gone to wind energy.

A 2014 Congressional Research Service report puts the cumulative value of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) at around $10 billion through 2015, and Treasury department data shows less than $13 billion in incentives for wind were awarded under the Section 1603 cash grant program, which was temporarily available in lieu of the PTC. Overall, wind therefore accounts for about two percent of total cumulative federal energy incentives. It should also be pointed out that other energy sources continue to receive incentives that are written into the permanent tax code, while wind and solar energy are the only ones to have had their credits phased-down by Congress.

Moreover, the value of wind energy incentives like the PTC flows through directly to customers in the form of lower electric bills. Bryce discusses Warren Buffett’s investments in wind energy, but he fails to note that a single one of those investments  is saving Iowa customers $10 million per year by itself.

There are virtually no exports of U.S. electricity, so the value of the PTC stays in America. In contrast, prices for many fossil fuels are set on a global basis, so U.S. subsidies have a minimal impact on global prices. Moreover, only a fraction of price reductions from those subsidies flow to U.S. consumers, with the vast majority of the government largesse flowing to fossil fuel consumers in other countries.

Bryce makes another series of errors

Later in his article, Bryce makes another series of math errors that lead him to overstate the impact of the main incentive for wind energy, the PTC, by a factor of nine, when he compares it against the cost of natural gas. Bryce assumes a wind plant receives the PTC for its full operational lifetime, but in reality a wind plant receives it for only the first 10 years of operations, cutting his estimate by roughly a factor of 2.5.

Bryce also incorrectly compares the value of the PTC against the Henry Hub price of natural gas, when in reality the relevant comparison would be against the cost of gas delivered to the electric sector. Because the delivered cost includes pipeline and other costs, it is much higher at $3.37/MMBtu (and $4-$5 on average over the last 5 years), not the $2.06 Henry Hub price Bryce uses in his article. Most importantly, Bryce ignores the fact that it takes 7.43 MMBtu of gas to produce 3.4 MMBtu of electricity (an efficiency of only 46%) so the cost of gas needed to produce one MMBtu of electricity is $7.33.

Putting these three errors together, Bryce’s math is off by a factor of nine. This is mostly due to elementary errors in his understanding of energy:

  1. Confusing a raw primary source of energy (natural gas) and useful secondary energy (electricity) and therefore ignoring that it requires more than two MMBtu of gas to produce one MMBtu of electricity;
  2. Claiming the renewable PTC is available for 25 years when in reality it is available for 10; and
  3. Not understanding that pipeline costs are a key component of delivered natural gas costs.

Though Bryce’s data fails to support his intended argument, his data does provide a valuable rebuttal of his own attacks on wind energy.

First, his data show that incentives for wind energy are small compared to government incentives for other energy sources. And second, his data show that large, successful, diversified companies are making large investments in the U.S. wind industry, an indication of the wind industry’s strength and bright future.

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