- - Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunshine is free but solar power isn’t. American taxpayers have been subsidizing the cost of turning sunlight into electricity for a decade, and just as the sun was beginning to set on life support, the solar industry prevailed in a plea for more government welfare. Lawmakers could have held the feet of the welfare kings and queens to the fire and forced it to compete on a level playing field, but crony capitalism thrives on Capitol Hill.

The $1.15 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the government in 2016 was enacted by a compliant Congress and signed Friday by President Obama, pouring “benefits” to certain Americans, some needy and some merely favored. Solar panel manufacturers and solar power-generating utilities are prominent among the favored. If earlier generations of taxpayers had been so profligate with taxpayer largesse for manufacturers of useless things, there would still be abundant buggy whips for buyers of Cadillacs, Ford pick-ups, a Mercedes or a Lexus 460.

A 30 percent income tax credit for commercial solar power that was set to fall to 10 percent, and to zero for residential users in 2017, has been saved by Speaker Ryan and his sidekick, Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Expiring tax credits for the wind industry were revived as part of a tradeoff: Democrats rewarded their friends of sun and wind and Republicans got the lifting of a ban on the export of domestic in place for 40 years.

The five-year tax credit extension delays a day of reckoning that has dawned elsewhere. Europeans whose hearts went aflutter over green energy have begun to pull back, unable to afford the generous tax breaks. In Spain, the government has turned off the spigot after spending $41 billion on subsidies for solar and wind projects. Britain has reduced the amount it pays for solar power by about 65 percent, and further approved tapping into natural gas beneath parkland with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which President Obama and the Democrats have has tried to eliminate in the United States. Germany is phasing out subsidies after pouring $130 billion into alternative energy.

It’s not difficult to make hay while the sun shines, nor is it difficult to keep the money flowing when Uncle Sam is everybody’s sugar daddy. The United States has funneled $150 billion in tax credits and loan guarantees to the greedy over the past decade, according to calculations by Citizens Against Government Waste. The $535 million doled out to Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer, before it went belly up in 2011 was only the most notorious example. Despite the investment of taxpayer dollars, solar power only provides about 4 percent of the American energy needs, and wind of 18 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Politically unpopular oil, on the other hand, knows how to avoid taking a tumble when times get tough. With the price of oil rising and falling like a Yo-Yo — the price of oil fell by 36 percent this year to $35 a barrel — the industry nevertheless adjusted its business model to make money in hard times.

So could the solar industry. That’s the point John Berger, the CEO of Sunnova Energy Corp., tried to make in a November letter to Congress: “We do not believe an extension of this credit is necessary for the continued health of the solar industry. In fact, quite the opposite is true. If the credit is allowed to step down as planned, the industry will remain more robust in both the long- and short-term.”

Too bad, but the subsidies survived. Who would have thought the sun, of all the stars, needs help from Congress.

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