As the wind production tax credit is set to expire, skeptics argue that it can't compete with fossil fuels, even with government help.
WASHINGTON - As Army officers, Duane Enger and Justin Van Beusekom each spent time in Iraq trying to win a grinding war. Last week, the two Minnesota veterans found themselves hunkered down in Washington battling political gridlock to preserve wind power as a part of the United States' energy arsenal.
The Truman National Security Project flew Enger and Van Beusekom from Minnesota to the nation's capital as part of Operation Free, a coalition of veterans who want to make development of clean energy part of the national security debate. The vets say that not developing domestic fuel sources puts the country at risk by making it vulnerable to the whims of foreign fuel suppliers.
"I remember driving from Kuwait to Baghdad and seeing the pipeline carrying oil into Iraq," Enger said. "Then, we came on a scene of Iraqis waiting for gas in lines that were 2 miles long. Iraq hadn't invested in their own natural resources. We're the Saudi Arabia of wind."
Enger and Van Beusekom both work for wind power companies now. So, they say, do thousands of other military veterans, as wind energy companies and makers of wind power equipment have become big employers in Minnesota and Iowa.
The Minnesota duo spent three days telling the staffs of U.S. senators and representatives that Congress needs to extend the wind production tax credit that is set to expire at year's end. Without the credit, Enger and Van Beusekom believe, private investments in wind power will disappear and crush the industry at a critical time in its development.
"We're not saying get rid of the oil and gas industries," Van Beusekom explained. "We're saying let us be part of the future of energy in America."
It is not always an easy sell.
"If wind requires a subsidy, it tells us it costs more than its value," said David Kreutzer, an energy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
As for national security, Kreutzer said the United States has plenty of generating capacity for electricity. "We could build windmills coast to coast and it wouldn't do anything to our imported oil consumption."
Many Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, do not want to renew the tax credit, saying the subsidy is too high and that the cost of wind power still can't compete with fossil fuels.
"I was here in Washington in March, and it was partisan," said Van Beusekom, who grew up in Brooklyn Park, served two tours in Iraq and now works for EDP Renewables in Leroy, Minn.
"Now, it's bipartisan, sort of ... We're not changing minds so much as we're informing people. We're telling our story, putting faces and names to the industry."
Enger, a Montanan, West Point graduate and Iraq veteran, moved to Minneapolis to take a wind power job with Gamesa. He likened the wind production tax credit battle to an extended military campaign.
"Here's the objective," he said of keeping the credit. "It's hard and complex. You don't measure it as a daily or weekly effort. My parents' generation kicked the can down the road for energy independence. We're promoting a long-term solution."
But with the House, Senate and White House needing to reach at least temporary deals on reducing the national debt and raising federal revenue to avoid drastic budget cuts to domestic programs and defense spending, the wind tax credit might not be a priority.
Enger and Van Beusekom said that their best meeting came with the staff of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Three members of the Minnesota Democrat's staff sat down with the vets to talk about the importance of renewable fuels and jobs.
Klobuchar "is a leader on the issue," Enger said. "We need a long-term solution, and they understand it."
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123