Wind energy technologies have been around for a long time, but development and support has been sporadic at times. Recent advances in fracking technologies have diminished the perceived urgency for converting to alternative forms of energy. As a result, government subsidies for wind power have also started to waver in the United States and abroad. If support for wind power continues to wane, investors need to consider the potential repercussions.
Humans have been harnessing the power of wind for nearly two millennia, though the first modern electricity-generating wind turbines only started to appear during the late 19th century in Scotland. During the early 20th century, Denmark and the United States were leaders in mass producing windmills. Over the subsequent decades, however, investment support has been far from stable.
Higher oil prices over the past 5 years have made fracking-based production of oil and natural gas more cost effective. With access to previously untapped reserves of these fossil fuels, governments currently face less pressure to transition to cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy. To wit, the U.S Production Tax Credit for wind energy projects was omitted from a package of temporary tax break extensions for 2014. Lawmakers are currently aiming for a retroactive 2-year extension that would be effective through 2015. That said, this recurring uncertainty over tax credit funding has a highly disruptive effect on the wind energy industry.
Many individual energy investors, like T. Boone Pickens, have also retracted their support for wind power in recent few years. Having cut his losses in the wind market, Pickens now supports natural gas as the transitional path to the future. With clean and cheap natural gas gaining favor as a means for greater near-term energy independence, the U.S. government will likely encounter increased pressure to reallocate subsidies towards this arena.
Even in countries that are resistant to environmentally unfriendly fracking technologies such as Germany, popular support has shifted. Berlin has simultaneously pledged to support their wind industry and also reform the country’s green energy law to lessen the impact on its citizens. Under the current structure, a major portion of wind subsidies comes from regular electricity consumers who have to pay a sizable renewable energy surcharge. Proposed revisions to the law would limit subsidies by slowing down further expansion of the renewables sector.
Over in Asia, Japan shows signs of returning to nuclear power, which does not augur well for its relatively small wind industry. Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, Japan vowed to completely abandon nuclear power within 20 years. Prime Minister Abe, however, has started to move Japan back towards nuclear energy in an effort to stem the country’s mounting trade deficits due to the high costs of importing fossil fuels. If Abe succeeds, restored nuclear energy capacity will indubitably offset some of the demand for wind energy.
As governments all over the world deal with this fine balancing act, a trend is clearly materializing. Unless global economic growth picks up, wind subsidies will likely face increased funding challenges over the long term. Ideally, the industry would be self-sufficient, but decades of financial aid have resulted in systemic overdependence. On the flip side, languishing national unemployment figures will encourage lawmakers to continue supporting this job creating arena.
Companies that will see a direct impact from this volatility and uncertainty include wind turbine installers like General Electric’s (GE – Free GE Stock Report) subsidiary GE Energy, Vestas Wind Systems, Enel Green Power, Enercon, and Sinovel Wind Group. Those who support the construction of these wind plants will also be affected. For example, RBC Bearings (ROLL) manufactures high-precision bearings that are used in wind turbines. Cement and aggregate producers like Eagle Materials (EXP) may also see increased top-line variability. Investors should also keep in mind producers of Carbon Fiber and high-performance coatings like Cytec Industries (CYT), PPG Industries (PPG), and Hexcel (HXL).
Although wind energy subsidies may remain in place over the near-term, a clear shift in public opinion has already occurred. If the economic situation of average citizens keeps worsening, other cheaper forms of energy will gain favor, and these wind subsidies will become prime fodder for future budget cuts. If that happens, investors will want to reevaluate their exposure to companies operating within both the wind industry and its ancillary sectors.
At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.