Upgrading existing hydroelectric facilities to improve their efficiency or capacity can be cost-effective. Not only will the plant produce more electricity more efficiently, but the upgrades may qualify the facility for a tax incentive designed to spur the development of new renewable electricity generation. For example, installing inflatable flashboards or high-efficiency turbine runners could qualify a project for an energy production tax credit of 1.1¢/kWh.
As part of the sweeping Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress amended section 45 of the Internal Revenue Code to expand the renewable electricity production tax credit (or PTC) to incremental production gains from efficiency improvements or capacity additions to existing hydroelectric facilities. Eligible improvements must be placed in service after August 8, 2005, and before January 1, 2014.
To qualify incremental hydroelectric generation for the tax credit, the project owner applies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under section 1301(c). The Commission is required to certify the “historic average annual hydropower production” and the “percentage of average annual hydropower production at the facility attributable to the efficiency improvements or additions of capacity” placed in service during that time period. The applicant is then able to take the production tax credit for the incremental amount of electric energy produced as a result of the upgrades.
While a credit of 1.1¢/kWh may seem small, hydroelectric projects typically
produce relatively large amounts of electric energy at a relatively low
operating cost. Depending on the energy market, at times the tax credit
may be worth half as much as the value of the underlying energy. Also, in this context, the tax credit is only available for the incremental generation produced above the historic baseline; thus allowing incremental hydropower production to qualify for the PTC arguably rewards investment in upgrades.
At the same time, the continued availability of the tax credit for any kind of renewable electricity is in doubt. Under current law, most renewable resources must be placed in service by the end of 2013 to qualify for the production tax credit. Wind energy projects must be placed in service by the end of 2012. Congress is considering whether to renew the tax credit, as it has done a number of times since it was first enacted in 1992. According to a Congressional Budget Office report released this month, tax credits for renewable energy sources cost the government $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2011.