by Richard T. Stuebi
One of the more popular policy prescriptions often made by ardent renewable energy advocates is the adoption of a “feed-in tariff” (FIT).
With a FIT, the government sets a price for electricity supplied by a qualifying renewable energy source, and the price is usually sufficiently high to produce a good return for the investor to install the renewable energy project. This, in turn, provides a substantial economic motivation for the growth of the renewable energy sector.
Supporters love the fact that a FIT policy provides a long-term, stable, predictable, and lucrative return on renewable energy investment. Naturally, this leads to booming markets for renewable energy where FITs are in place.
FITs are in wide use in many parts of the world – mainly in Europe, but increasingly in Canada as well. Correspondingly, these markets are experiencing exploding growth for renewables.
However, to date, traction has been slow to come for FITs in the U.S. because the policy mechanism is innately at odds with the prevailing philosophy of the American economy: to let market forces sort things out.
In the U.S., the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) has been the preferred policy mechanism to promote the penetration of renewable energy (along with the predictable potpourri of incentives and subsidies buried in the piles of the tax codes). In an RPS, the government sets a target for a quantity of renewables to be adopted by a certain date – and then lets market forces dictate what mix of renewables will supply the requirement, as well as the price implications of that mix.
By contrast, a FIT explicitly puts the government in the position of price-setter, and picks technological winners by placing prices as a function of the renewable energy technology in question.
If the price of the FIT is set too high, unquestionably this pushes renewable energy adoption, but tramples competitive forces in doing so: bad (meaning, to me, highly-uneconomic) projects get done, and/or companies or investors make outrageous profits. On the other hand, if the price of the FIT is set too low, then the policy won’t have any impact at all: no incremental investment in the desired renewables will occur.
In other words, the government has to be able to set the price at exactly the right level to induce a lot of investment – but no higher so as to provide a free wealth grab, and no lower so as to discourage the market from happening at all. No government is that smart to be able to perfectly set the price of a FIT. So, in practice, FIT prices are very high – and the renewable energy interests profit immensely from it.
Although FIT policy has historically gone nowhere in the U.S., that may be changing, as FITs are starting to get more serious consideration. In early 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted the first FIT in the U.S., to promote up to a maximum of 480 megawatts installed. Earlier this year, the city of Gainesville, Florida enacted a feed-in tariff for its municipal utility. Even in Michigan, not considered one of the leading states in pro-renewables policies, the Public Service Commission is considering a pilot feed-in tariff.
I am not sold on the FIT mechanism as good policy, because it is so heavy-handed and arbitrary. However, as the rest of the world adopts FIT policies, they extend their leadership over the U.S. – and the leadership is not just in market size, but also in technological advancement. If the U.S. doesn’t maintain technological leadership, then we’ve lost arguably our best asset. If a FIT policy is necessary to be leaders in renewable energy, then maybe it’s a necessary evil.
It wouldn’t be the first time I’d have had to swallow hard in lukewarmly supporting a policy that otherwise I find fundamentally challenging.
Some have argued that the aggregate economic subsidy associated with a national FIT policy is outweighed by the faster reduction in costs associated with renewable energy advancement promoted by the FIT, plus the avoided expenditures on fossil fuels displaced by the increased renewable energy production caused by the FIT. It’s an interesting argument, but counter-intuitive to me, and I’d like to see some quantitative support for this line of reasoning.
Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.