On the whole, 2012 offered progress for renewable energy in the United States--especially if you extend the year through January 1, 2013, when the American Taxpayer Relief Act finally groaned its way through Congress.
Surprising many, renewable energy and alternative fuels retained and even expanded their pre-fiscal cliff tax credit status, as well as reviving prior benefits lost through expirations. The results appeared almost immediately with large gains in renewable energy and alternative fuels stocks, some of them in double digits over just a week.
Most of the energy-related changes are permanent, at least for one to ten years. The dividends and capital gains adjustments for individuals benefit the established electric and natural gas companies and other major corporate interests. Other measures sought in the last-minute bill, especially those sought by each party to revise and streamline the tax code, will be debated hotly as early as this coming March, when Congress will reconsider the sequestration cuts that may limit discretionary spending.
It's likely that Republicans will continue to push for lowering costs by disadvantaging young green energy companies, innovative yet to date unprofitable ventures, and startups. Also probable: Democrats will continue to attempt to hammer away tax advantages (such as enormous subsidies) that benefit Big Oil, Gas, and Coal. Both sides tout the elusive, possibly irrelevant goal of "energy independence." Left unconsidered is the development of coherent national goals with more flexible means and of priorities that take into account the users of the other 75% of the world's energy.
Congress originally created tax benefits for green energy and reduction of environmental pollution (including greenhouse gases) over the past 15 years, when our status switched from significant petroleum exporter toward major importer of increasingly costly fossil fuels, and when global warming began to emerge as a real threat. States and municipalities have followed suit and in many cases made more vigorous moves than the federal government. Even petroleum companies have given at least lip service, and in some cases more, to the importance of developing renewables.
Investments in renewables save money for the nation over the long term because most of their cost occurs during the construction phase. The operational lifetime of renewables involves a fairly swift 100% payback and can return unprecedented profits. Also, prices of renewable technology (e.g., solar panels) continue to plummet.
Unlike fossil-fueled power sources, renewables do not depend on increasingly destructive means of extracting finite resources. They thus play a vital part in reducing climate change, which may radically alter ways of life throughout the world within the next generation. Many also confer the added benefit of curtailing waste generation through reuse.
The challenge facing the U.S. now is whether we can continue these very real, climate-saving gains made with renewable power sources in the face of the recent massive expansion of fossil fuel reserves. The "new" oil, gas, and coal resources can be used only because of technologies thought very hazardous and prohibitively expensive as recently as year 2000. Will we be as casual about mining them as the black gold prospectors of the 19th and 20th centuries?
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covered climate change issues raised at the recently concluded UN summit meeting. Her work also includes investigations into solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, geothermal, and conventional energy forms. Sandy has also reported for Examiner.com on extreme weather disasters over the past few years.
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