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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Feed-in tariffs: an idea whose time still has not come

A group of renewable energy activists have been pushing for the US to emulate Germany by instituting a feed-in-tariff. The idea is that the more generous payment to RE generators would increase the installation of RE generating capacity.

The California Public Utilities Commission has been flirting with idea for years, with trial efforts at a smaller scale, and hosting a symposium endorsing the idea last year. The CPUC reportedly endorsed a FiT for systems from 1-20 MW in size, although the F-phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in its recent news.

Is this such a good idea?

A comparatively balanced article by veteran Eric Wesoff of Greentech Media earlier this year discussed the pros and cons of this approach. One important requirement — as with any government manipulation of the market — is predictability:
Gary Kremen, solar entrepreneur and founder of Clean Power Finance, had this to say on the subject: "FiTs are great if they are a long-term commitment on the part of government and utilities. Off-and-on FITs make planning and the mandatory required financing hard, if not impossible."
Those promoting feed-in tariffs tout the undeniable effectiveness of FiT in promoting solar adoption in Germany. However, as Wesoff notes, that comes at a price:
Germany is experiencing a bit of a feed-in tariff backlash as their citizenry reacts to FiT dollars going to Chinese, rather than German, solar module manufacturers. FiTs can also be construed as a tax -- and that's political poison in the U.S.
In other words, subsidies for inefficient power producers are politically palatable if it creates domestic jobs, but not if it ships domestic funds overseas.

The big disaster of FiT is that it doesn’t set prices right, because it uses government fiat rather than the market to match supply and demands. The €15+ billion fiasco in Spain is Exhibit A. Because they are expensive, even some progressive consumer groups oppose their use.

For more than a year, the state has been toying with a modified FiT that it now calls a renewable auction mechanism. The Aug. 24 CPUC decision to create this mechanism seems to be a compromise that pleases everyone and no one.

In particular, it’s design to correct the most egregious errors of the government-set pricing. As Nikki Chandler reported:
Some governments have used fixed-price feed-in tariffs to incentivize renewable energy development. One point of difficulty has been getting the fixed pricing right. If the price is set too low, it does not stimulate the desired level of market activity. If the price is set too high, ratepayers pay unnecessary costs, suppliers throughout the value chain are not encouraged to reduce prices, and the program can lose political support. In contrast, the CPUC program uses competition to establish a price that is both sufficient for project development and protective of ratepayers.
The plan seems to please one group (Interstate Renewable Energy Council) lobbying for a FiT and anger another (the FiT Coalition).

If the supporters are right, the RAM will increase solar adoption in California without paying too much (and also not violating federal restrictions on cross-subsidies issued in July by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.) If RAM opponents (or hard-core FiT supporters) are right, the market-oriented tariff won’t be enough to stimulate a supply of renewable power. I guess (as in Spain and Germany), time will tell.

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