Renewable energy and electric vehicles dodge a bullet in tax bill

  • The final GOP tax bill leaves a $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases intact after the House proposed killing it.
  • The House also aimed to reduce or eliminate tax credits for wind and solar power credits.
  • A complicated provision known as BEAT could still dent investment in renewable energy, industry groups warn.
Technicians installing photovoltaic PV solar panels.
Lester Lefkowitz | Getty Images
Technicians installing photovoltaic PV solar panels.

Electric car makers and the renewable energy industry can mostly breathe a sigh of relief after many feared changes to the U.S. tax code would weigh on demand for clean technology.

The House bill released last month took direct aim at federal subsidies for electric vehicles, wind energy and solar power. The Senate left current policies unchanged, but its bill contained financial provisions that would have eroded the value of wind and solar tax credits.

The final Republican tax bill passed this week restored the status quo on many fronts, but clean energy lobbyists aren't resting easy just yet. A complicated provision made its way into the bill, and the renewable power industry worries that it could still weigh on demand.

Here's how tax policy for electric vehicles and renewable energy stands right now.

Electric vehicles

The House sought to repeal a credit that allows car buyers to claim up to $7,500 for electric vehicle purchases or leases. That raised concerns that demand for the plug-in vehicles would plummet.

It also put jobs American jobs at risk, according to Calstart, a clean transportation group. Electric vehicle and component manufacturing employs more than 215,000 U.S. workers, according to Department of Energy research cited by Calstart.

The final bill keeps the credit in tact. Manufacturers can claim the credit until they've sold 200,000 electric vehicles. After that, a phase-out period begins.

Wind energy

The House also proposed reducing the tax credit for building wind energy facilities. It would have knocked the current 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour production tax credit down to 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Lawmakers also suggested retroactively changing the rules that determine which wind projects qualify for the production tax credit. That means developers who started projects under the old guidelines would have to prove those projects met the new guidelines. If they couldn't provide proof, they would no longer qualify for the full credit and would likely see their project costs rise.

Neither provision survived the conference process in which the House and Senate reconcile their bills.

The wind industry also had reason to cheer the repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax, which sought to make sure companies didn't pay too little in taxes.

The Senate bill allowed companies to offset the provision with various tax credits. However, it would have only allowed wind farm developers to offset the minimum tax with production tax credits for the first four years after a project enters service. That would have been a problem because the subsidy is designed to distribute benefits over a 10-year period.

Solar power

The House bill also would have ended a tax credit for investment in solar power for commercial properties and large solar farms. The 30 percent investment tax credit is scheduled to gradually reduce to a permanent 10 percent rate in the coming years, but the House aimed to eliminate the credit altogether after 2027.

The provision was not a major concern, but it would reduce long-term certainty and force the solar industry to plow its time and energy into a campaign to extend the credit.

More immediately, the House bill proposed changes to eligibility rules that would make it harder for solar farm investors to claim the credit in a given year. As a result, some solar projects may have only qualified in later years, when the value of the credit is scheduled to fall.

In the end, the permanent 10 percent tax credit survived, and the eligibility criteria remained the same.

BEAT: The bullet yet to be dodged

Investment in the renewable sector is also under threat by a provision in the Senate bill called the Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax, or BEAT, a provision that targets companies that lower their tax bill through cross-border transfers to affiliates.

The BEAT is complicated, but here's the takeaway for renewables. In the original Senate bill, claiming production and investment tax credits would increase a company's chances of running afoul the BEAT, so the provision makes investment in renewables less attractive.

The final bill allows companies to offset up to 80 percent of their BEAT burden with production and investment credits for renewables. This marks an improvement, but the BEAT could still dampen investment in renewable power projects, industry associations say.

Many renewable power developers don't have a large enough tax bill to use the investment tax credits, so they secure investments from banks and other institutions that carry hefty tax burdens and can benefit from the credits. This is called tax equity investment.

Tax equity investors won't necessarily know how BEAT will affect them until the end of each year. That uncertainty could cause them to be more cautious about funding renewable projects if they can't be sure how much of their investment they'll be able to recoup.

Industry representatives say they'll be working with Congress to potentially tinker with BEAT.