Hot air still rules on Capitol Hill, where senators voted Tuesday to restore millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for windmills, in a signal that Congress is still eager to pick winners in the emerging renewable-energy sector.
A sizable number of Republicans joined most Democrats in backing the subsidy for research on wind energy which, while small in terms of dollars, is considered a major symbolic test of Congress’s commitment to having alternative energy sources be part of the mix, even if they aren’t economically viable on their own yet.
“This program is indispensable to the success of wind energy in the United States,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who led the push to restore $15.4 million in funding for 2017, boosting the total wind energy subsidy in the energy spending bill to $95.4 million. “This is an evolving industry with great potential to assist us with clean energy, and moreover a program that can affect the economy of rural America.”
He and other wind supporters said turbines account for 5 percent of U.S. energy production, and that could rise to 35 percent by the middle of the century if the government helps keep the industry afloat and expanding.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, led the opposition, saying federal taxpayers have poured $23 billion into subsidies for wind over the last few decades, and wind still has yet to prove it can be a major player.
Mr. Alexander said wind has several fatal flaws: it’s unreliable, other sources are more mature and the energy from wind turbines can’t be easily stored, meaning it has to be used as it’s produced.
“It mostly blows at night, when we don’t need it,” he said.
The fight came as part of the annual energy and water spending bill, which the Senate has been debating for a week. The bill is the first of the 12 annual discretionary spending bills to reach the floor, as Republicans strive to prove they can fund the government through regular operations.
Spending bills are usually the most freewheeling part of legislating, and lawmakers are allowed to offer amendments so long as they are on the subject matter. Congress often uses the spending process to challenge administration policy, and this year’s energy bill is no different.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, on Tuesday said he’s written an amendment to stop the administration from buying heavy water used in nuclear production from Iran, calling his proposal another chance for Congress to weigh in on the nuclear deal President Obama struck with Iran last year.
“We’ve given the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime enough concessions at the risk of our security; we should not further subsidize its enrichment activity by making repeated purchases of this material,” Mr. Cotton said.
The White House mocked the plan, and Mr. Cotton himself.
“If he has genuine concerns about this, maybe he can just write another letter to the Supreme Leader and see how far that gets him,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Mr. Cotton angered the White House last year by writing a letter to Iranian leaders, warning that the administration’s deal aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear program would not legally bind the U.S. unless the Senate ratified it as a treaty, which he predicted correctly would not happen.
Tuesday’s wind vote saw 12 Republicans join with 41 Democrats and one independent senator in sustaining full funding for windmill research. Two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California, joined the rest of the GOP in voting against the taxpayer subsidy.
For Democrats, support for alternative energy is a matter of ideological purity, while for Republican supporters it was a matter of local politics — with GOP senators in Midwest and Mountain states backing it.
The research and development funding pays for the Energy Department to continue sponsoring research designed to advance turbines’ productivity and the ability to integrate that energy into the existing grid.
The research money is just a fraction of total federal support for wind turbines. Most of the aid comes in the form of a tax credit, which producers rely on to make themselves economically competitive with fossil fuels.