12 August 2010

FiTs and Starts: Are Feed-in Tariffs Fit to Be Tried?

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, ...Image via Wikipedia
NREL, Golden, CO
With the death of Cap-and-Trade legislation in the Senate, Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) are starting to become more and more attractive to renewable energy boosters.

But are FiTs all they are cracked up to be?

NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recently released a A Policymaker's Guide to Feed-in Tariff Policy Design that largely sings the praises of various FiT schemes.

According to a Deutsche Bank study quoted in the NREL guide, 75 percent of global solar PV and 45 percent of wind development are directly related to FiT schemes. In the European Union alone, over the past ten years, FiTs have led to the deployment of 15,000 MW of solar PV and 55,000 MW of wind power.

The benefits of FiTs are obvious to the renewable energy (RE) industry, as NREL states, FiTs drive "market growth by providing developers long-term purchase agreements for the sale of electricity generated from RE sources. These purchase agreements, which aim to be both effective and cost-efficient, typically offer aspecified price for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced and are structured with contracts ranging from 10-25 years."

Furthermore, "payment level can be differentiated by technology type, project size, resource quality, and project location."

And therein lies the rub. FiTs do not a free market make: 1.) Fixing the price doesn't mean the best price for consumers or taxpayers and 2.) the government picks the technology, site or size of the project.

While you can't argue with success, we are already seeing that such success can lead to excess.

According to a renewable energy player familiar with a variety of country-based FiT policies, such schemes have led to an excess of solar development (viz. the German example) or prices that don't take into account future efficiencies and cost-savings, which can result in windfall profits for developers and manufacturers.

More of our focus needs to be on making renewables more efficient and cost-effective so they don't have to rely on government props and subsidies. The example of Spain should be a warning, where retroactive cuts to their FiT scheme due to the bad economy may endanger that country's solar industry and renewable production altogether.

Fixing prices and picking technologies shouldn't be the job of governments. I'm not saying that FiT schemes can't be properly designed to allow as free a market as possible, I just don't want to see us all go to Abilene yet again chasing the latest "Get FiT" fad.
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