In just 14 days, one prospect for a cleaner environment could sail right over the fiscal cliff.
That's because key incentives for continuing to develop clean, renewable wind power -- the renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) and offshore wind Investment Tax Credit (ITC) -- are set to expire if Congress fails to act.
With wind power on the line, there's a lot at stake for our environment and the future of our planet.
Wind energy already powers nearly 13 million homes across the country, and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 20 percent of the nation's electricity could be supplied by wind power by 2030.
We need only look back at the past year to see just how badly our nation needs to tap into our vast wind energy potential.
Much of America spent 2012 in the grips of the deepest drought since the 1950s. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found that 80 percent of our agricultural land was impaired by drought this year. This type of extreme weather has been linked to global warming. Heat-trapping gasses released by burning such fossil fuels as coal and oil drive up temperatures, accelerating evaporation. To make matters worse, the United States withdraws more water from lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers in order to cool power plants than for any other purpose.
Tapping into our wind potential requires no water for cooling. America's current wind energy generation saves enough water to supply the annual water needs of a city the size of Boston. Over the next three years, at the current rate of growth, these benefits would almost double, resulting in annual water savings sufficient to meet the needs of an additional 600,000 people, or the size of Washington, D.C., according to Environment America Research and Policy Center's recent report, "Wind Power for a Cleaner America."
Wind energy also helps Americans breathe easier, as it replaces dirty energy sources that harm our health.
Our current wind energy capacity reduces air pollution by avoiding 137,000 pounds of smog-forming emissions and 91,000 pounds of soot-forming emissions every year. This is good news for the almost 30 million Americans suffering from asthma, and many more suffering from other respiratory conditions triggered by these dangerous pollutants.
And of course, this past year's record temperatures, raging wildfires, and extreme weather events have brought home the reality of global warming for far too many Americans.
As our nation heals from Hurricane Sandy and the $62 billion in damages it wrought, we should be looking to increased wind energy as one of many steps we need to take to avert extreme climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures and sea-level rise caused by melting polar ice caps are leading to more intense hurricanes accompanied by greater storm surges. Wind power already prevents as much global warming pollution as taking 13 million cars off the road each year. If wind growth continues at a rate similar to recent years through 2016 -- much more likely with an extension of the PTC and ITC -- wind energy would nearly double these benefits as well by that time.
Keeping wind on track and delivering tremendous environmental benefits should be simple: Congress just needs to act.
But despite real bipartisan support and a broad coalition of unions, businesses, outdoors enthusiasts, health professionals and faith leaders who are speaking out in favor of wind energy, friends of the oil industry such as Americans for Prosperity and polluters such as Exelon -- the largest utility company in the United States -- are lobbying Congress to let the clock run out on wind energy incentives.
If polluters and their deep-pocketed friends succeed, wind energy development is expected to slow to a crawl. When the PTC has been allowed to expire in the past -- 1999, 2001 and 2003 -- annual wind installations dropped between 73 and 93 percent. Repeating this would leave environmental benefits critical to solving global warming and our water shortage problems on the table.
Encouraging American wind energy should be a no-brainer for anyone who values a clean environment. But in a mere 14 days, these urgently needed incentives and the benefits they bring could expire once again.
Congress needs to act without delay to extend the wind energy Production Tax Credit and the offshore wind Investment Tax Credit. Wind energy has already helped America to make significant strides for our health and environment. We can't afford to blow it now.