An organizational structure called Master Limited Partnerships has the potential to increase private-sector investment in clean energy. Master Limited Partnerships, or MLPs, benefit from a tax structure under which investors are taxed as partners but can trade their ownership stakes on securities exchanges much like corporate stock. Newly proposed federal legislation could extend this treatment to clean energy technologies.
MLPs offer their investors an attractive combination of tax advantages and liquidity. Profit from most publicly traded corporations is taxed twice, at both the corporate level and the shareholder level. By contrast, income from MLPs is taxed only at the shareholder level because it is treated as a partnership for tax purposes. Like Real Estate Investment Trusts or REITs, MLPs thus combine the tax benefits of a limited partnership with the liquidity of publicly traded securities.
Under federal law, MLP treatment is limited to enterprises generating at least 90 percent of their income from qualifying sources. These generally involve the use of natural resources, such as the production, processing or transportation of petroleum, natural gas, coal, timber, and other minerals. Since 1981, the use of the MLP structure has grown; estimates suggest that over 100 MLPs are currently being traded on major exchanges, with a total market valuation of about $445 billion.
Yesterday Congress introduced proposed bipartisan legislation that would extend this tax structure to clean energy technologies. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act, formally known as S.795: A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the publicly traded partnership ownership structure to energy power generation projects and transportation fuels, and for other purposes, is sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., along with co-sponsors Sens. Jerry Moran; R-Kan., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.
The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act would significantly broaden the scope of projects eligible for MLP treatment to include clean energy resources and infrastructure projects. These projects would include any energy technologies that qualify for the federal production tax credit or investment tax credit, such as wind, closed and open loop biomass, geothermal, solar, municipal solid waste, hydropower, marine and hydrokinetic, fuel cells, and combined heat and power. The bill would also open the MLP structure to advanced transportation fuels such as cellulosic, ethanol, biodiesel, and algae-based fuels, as well as energy-efficient buildings, electricity storage, carbon capture and storage, renewable chemicals, and waste-heat-to-power technologies.
Proponents hope that the act would stimulate investment in clean energy projects much as it has worked for other extractive natural resource infrastructure. At the same time, concern over the federal budget calls for serious consideration of measures that would reduce federal tax revenues. So far, the bill seems to have broad support and little outspoken opposition. If enacted, it could lead to an influx of investment capital into renewable and clean energy technologies.