The US renewable energy industry faces a greatly altered incentive environment next year, as eligibility for two of its largest current subsidies comes to an end at the close of 2011. The corn ethanol sector will likely see the complete withdrawal of the blenders' credit that has fueled its growth for more than 30 years, while new projects generating electricity from renewable energy sources must shortly attract investment without the Treasury grants that provided up-front cash in place of federal investment tax credits against taxable income--a commodity sometimes in even shorter supply among recipients than the energy they seek to generate. With these expirations taking place against the backdrop of a US presidential election campaign and record levels of deficit and federal debt, the prospects for another round of one-year subsidy extensions look slim. Yet renewable energy development in the US won't grind to a halt without them, because these two programs represent merely the most generous layer of the complex web supporting renewables.

Consider the venerable ethanol tax credit, which was made mostly redundant by the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, with its Renewable Fuels Standard mandating the use of increasing quantities of ethanol in gasoline. In fact, ethanol producers were never more than indirect beneficiaries of the $0.45 per gallon credit, which was paid to refiners and other gasoline blenders in order to help create a market for ethanol. Mission accomplished. Moreover, with US gasoline sales having stalled at a level that can barely absorb all the ethanol that existing US ethanol plants can produce, unless gasoline blends containing more than 10% ethanol become popular, there is simply no need for corn ethanol output to expand further. In fact, the market will be more than sufficiently challenged providing outlets for the limited quantities of cellulosic and other advanced ethanol likely to be produced in the next few years. As I've noted previously, forward-looking members of the industry are now seeking help in expanding the market for high-ethanol blends, rather than perpetuating an outdated support for existing sales.

The situation for renewable electricity sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy is more complicated. The expiring Treasury grants were introduced as part of the 2009 stimulus to stand in for the "tax equity swap" market, a category of financial transactions that froze up during the financial crisis. These swaps provided a private-sector cash-flow bridge between project expenditures and tax credits that only paid off after start-up as income was earned or energy produced. That was particularly helpful for smaller, less profitable developers, but it also provided an additional check on marginal projects. Even after credit markets eased, most developers understandably preferred the cash grants, which reduced their financing costs and avoided the fees that bankers charged on tax equity deals. However, that preference doesn't justify continuing the cash grant program--particularly for the large, profitable corporations that increasing dominate this space. The industry should focus more effort on fostering the revival of a liquid and competitive tax equity market and less on lobbying for an extension of a temporary stimulus measure.

Either way, the tax credits behind these grants and swaps won't last forever. Under current law, the principal federal tax credit for wind will be in place only through 2012, for biomass and geothermal through 2013, and for solar through 2016. Instead of a scenario of perpetual last-minute extensions such as we've seen in the past, the industry and its investors should be thinking about a scenario in which all these tax credits end, either as part of comprehensive tax reform that eliminates most such "tax expenditures"--including the ones for the oil and gas industry that have become so contentious in the last few years--or a transition to providing renewables with similar sorts of incentives as oil and gas, which essentially amount to forms of accelerated depreciation and modest tax breaks for manufacturing in the US, rather than in other countries.

It's also important to realize that even without these tax credits and in the absence of comprehensive federal energy legislation that looks unlikely any time soon, the industry would still retain numerous state-level benefits, starting with the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) for electricity currently in place in 29 states and the District of Columbia, a tally that encompasses most of the states with the best wind and solar resources. These RPS's are similar to the Renewable Fuel Standard for biofuels in requiring utilities to include increasing proportions of renewable energy in their supply portfolios, whether owned or purchased. Such standards, including California's aggressive RPS targeting 33% renewable electricity by 2020, stand outside the polarizing political debate over taxation and government expenditures. They function as an implicit tax on ratepayers, rather than taxpayers, because they show up within customers' utility bills rather than on their 1040 forms. That distinction could be particularly important if the congressional supercommittee fails to reach a consensus, and the default spending cuts built into the Budget Control Act that resolved this summer's debt ceiling crisis kick in.

So while it might appear that the US renewable energy industry is about it be cut loose from the key incentives that enabled it to grow to its present dimensions, it will continue to benefit from supports not enjoyed by other industrial sectors. Even when the current tax credits expire, renewables will have a mandated market providing a floor beneath them. Ethanol output won't revert to 2005 levels, nor will renewables vanish from the landscape, even if their growth slows a bit while the rest of the economy struggles to emerge from the aftermath of the Great Recession and financial crisis, and to avoid a double-dip. Meanwhile, global overcapacity in wind turbine and solar module manufacturing will keep their prices trending lower--and installations stronger--pending industry consolidations that will position both for healthier, more sustainable growth in the long run. All of this falls well short of the level of help for the industry that most renewable energy supporters would like to see, but it's far more than the level playing field (ignoring externalities) that would see cheap and abundant natural gas sweep away all competition for new power generation.