Rep. Tom Tiffany’s proposal to end most subsidies for solar and wind projects that create energy on farm land is worth a deeper look, but there’s one big factor that keeps us from endorsing such a move right now. Frankly, the timing stinks.
Energy costs for consumers are on the rise. Neither solar nor wind power directly affects the price of gas at the pump, where the increases are the most obvious. But electricity is going up, too, and that’s where solar and wind farms can indeed have an effect.
There’s no question more farms are taking advantage of the options for renewable energy production. The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed slightly more than 20,000 farms leased wind rights, not quite twice the number from five years earlier. And, since that figure is itself now five years old, the current number is undoubtedly higher. The census takes place every five years, so new data to confirm that should be available before too long.
The growth in electrical demand in recent years is, likewise, beyond doubt. While many home appliances, devices and even light bulbs have become more efficient, there are more of them seeking power. Added to that is the growth in electric vehicle use, which creates a category of demand that was virtually nonexistent a generation ago.
Critics point, accurately in most cases, to the fact solar and wind generation are less efficient means of electrical production than traditional power plants. But that position also often ignores gains in efficiency made in recent years, and there is reason to believe further research will extend those gains.
It’s important to realize that agriculture and renewable energy generation are not mutually exclusive. Placement of a wind turbine in a field does not eliminate that field from use for crops. If it did such restrictions would indeed be a major concern for us given the size most wind farms need to be in order to generate electricity at scale. And even solar power can be installed in conjunction with certain crops.
In fact, absolute exclusion is not what Tiffany is arguing, either. In his recent remarks, he focused on the effect of subsidies on land prices and the effect those prices have on renting. His concern seemed more focused on preservation of the ability of farmers, especially those who aren’t in position to purchase all the land they would like to farm, to pursue agriculture and food production.
And Tiffany isn’t wrong in saying that the American farmers’ collective ability to satisfy the nation’s food requirements is a national security issue. Cutting off a nation’s food supplies is one of the fastest and most effective ways to undermine it. The fact that can’t be done in the United States gives our nation a significant advantage over many others.
Where we differ with Tiffany is the claim that use of land for wind and solar represents an immediate, alarming threat to agriculture and national security. We don’t believe it is at a scale to pose such risk. But we’re sympathetic to the basic desire for periodic reviews of subsidies offered by the federal government.
It’s easy to see how a subsidy designed to protect an industry at one point in time might become redundant or unnecessary at another. It’s difficult to argue mature industries should be recipients of subsidies designed to nurture their growth during infancy. It is likewise difficult to argue changing needs should have no effect on the federal government’s approach to bolstering support for business.
Responsible application of such an approach demands something else, too. It must be used for more than just an industry members of congress seek to target or protect. Pet projects should be no less subject to scrutiny and fair assessment than those that find less favor.
About a year ago we editorialized that renewable energy should be an issue on which elected officials can find common ground. We still think that’s the case. The environmental benefits and the jobs it can create make support for the industry something that can be supported from both liberal and conservative perspectives.
Tiffany’s proposal may have a timing issue right now, but that doesn’t mean the same will be true later. And the basic point — that subsidies should face review occasionally — is clearly on point.