Governments at the federal, state, and local levels offer a range of incentives, rebates, tax credits, and other policies to spur greater adoption of renewable energy.
These measures make the economics of wind, solar, geothermal, and other sustainable power sources more viable for residents, businesses, and the broader energy system. This article overviews key renewable energy incentives, their impacts, and the outlook for continued policy support.
Several major federal incentives have driven explosive growth in U.S. wind and solar energy:
- Investment Tax Credit (ITC) – The solar ITC offers a 26% tax credit for residential and commercial solar installations. Set to phase down by 2024, the ITC will have stimulated over $270 billion in private investment by then.
- Production Tax Credit (PTC) – The renewable PTC provides wind developers tax credits per kWh of energy generated for the first 10 years of operation. It has enabled over 100 gigawatts of wind capacity.
- Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) – This system enables accelerated depreciation deductions on investments in renewables. It improves project economics.
- USDA Rural Energy Loans & Grants – Low-cost USDA financing and grants assist agricultural producers and rural businesses transition to renewable energy.
These and other policies, like clean energy bonds, have proven highly successful, though unstable expiration cycles hamper market stability. Advocates continue pushing for longer-term extensions.
State Renewable Incentives
State governments play a critical role driving renewable growth through incentives like:
- Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) – Mandates requiring utilities to source a percentage of power from renewables have been adopted by 30 states. State RPS policies now cover over 60% of U.S. electricity load.
- Net Metering – 43 states have implemented net Metering, requiring utilities to compensate solar households for electricity fed back to the grid. This makes rooftop solar more cost-effective.
- Property Tax Exemptions – Many states exempt renewable energy systems from being assessed higher property taxes. This reduces operating costs.
- Sales Tax Exemptions – At least 25 states offer sales tax exemptions for purchasing renewable energy equipment. Some states even allow income tax credits.
- Rebates & Grants – Over 25 states offer rebates, performance incentives, or grants to catalyze renewable energy growth. California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program has provided over $1 billion for distributed renewable generation.
State policies have been foundational in propelling renewables expansion, though driving continued progress remains critical.
Local Renewable Energy Incentives
Municipal governments are increasingly using local policies to incentivize renewables:
- Permitting Priority & Fee Waivers – Some cities fast-track renewable permitting and waive fees to streamline the process for developers and homeowners.
- Property Tax Abatements – Local governments may abate a portion of property taxes on renewable projects for 5-10 years to improve project economics.
- Solar & EV Readiness Codes – Building codes requiring solar pre-wiring or EV charging infrastructure minimize retrofit costs to enable future adoption.
- Municipal Procurement – Cities can incentivize renewables by committing to 100% clean power for government operations. Collective purchasing also accelerates deployment.
- Education & Streamlining – Many cities provide consumer education, tools, and streamlined solar permitting pathways for local homes and businesses to facilitate adoption.
Assessing Effectiveness of Renewable Incentives
Key metrics used to evaluate incentive policies include:
- Renewable energy capacity catalyzed – The ultimate measure of success is how much wind, solar, geothermal, etc. capacity is incentivized.
- Costs to taxpayers – Tax credits, rebates, and other policies represent government expenditures that must demonstrate tangible benefits.
- Cost decline impacts – Effective incentives accelerate market growth and technology innovation, driving down renewable costs over time.
- Avoided emissions – Incentives must displace fossil fuel energy and its associated emissions to provide climate benefits.
- Grid integration – Beyond raw capacity growth, incentives ideally enable reliable, cost-effective integration of renewables into the grid system.
- Industry and job growth – Well-designed incentives expand the economic development of in-state renewable supply chains, manufacturing, and employment.
Federal and state renewable incentives have proven highly successful, though instability creates market uncertainty. Key policy priorities looking ahead include:
- Long-term extensions – Lengthening federal tax credit durations beyond 1-2 year approvals provide needed market certainty: phaseouts and greater grid integration.
- Enhancing access – Expanding incentives to non-taxable entities like cities, schools, and non-profits enables broader participation. Pooling mechanisms can also open access.
- Innovation focus – Shifting from capacity-focused incentives to ones rewarding technology improvements could further reduce costs.
- Grid-enhancing incentives – New incentives prioritizing development in congested areas or encouraging complementary technologies like storage help balance rising renewable penetrations.
- Streamlining bureaucracy – Simplifying complex applications and approval processes for federal, state, and local incentives saves time and administration costs.
With smart enhancements, government incentives at all levels will remain essential to achieving a 100% renewable future.
Government Renewable Energy Incentives Comparison
|ITC, PTC, Bonds
|Personal & Corporate Income Tax Credits
|Property Tax Credits
|Sales, Property Tax
|Permitting & Impact Fee Waivers
|Industry Grants & Rebates
|ARPA-E, National Labs
|DOE Loan Guarantees
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most impactful renewable energy incentives today?
The federal Investment Tax Credit, Production Tax Credit, accelerated depreciation, and state RPS policies have driven most U.S. renewable energy growth over the past decade.
Do renewable incentives increase costs for taxpayers?
While entailing direct government costs, incentives accelerate cost declines, reducing subsidy needs. Renewables’ environmental and health benefits offset taxpayer costs.
Which renewable energy sources receive the most incentives?
Wind and solar have historically seen the greatest incentives, propelling their exceptional growth. Emerging sources like geothermal, tidal, and advanced biofuels currently need more currently incentives.
How long will renewable energy incentives be needed?
Incentives are essential to drive initial scale-up but can be phased out over time as costs decline. However, new incentives will likely be needed to support very high renewable penetrations.
Are there viable substitutes for tax-based renewable incentives?
Alternatives like federal grant programs, R&D funding, financing supports, and procurement mandates can incentivize renewables independent of tax policy. But tax credits have proven uniquely powerful.
Could renewables succeed without government incentives?
Thus far, incentives have been critical for accelerating renewable adoption, but sustaining policy support remains pivotal even as costs fall to transition to a net zero carbon economy fully.