“You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. In honor of Climate Week NYC and the Covering Climate Now initiative, we’re focusing on your questions about climate change.
The following question was submitted through our Instagram page by one of our followers. The answer was provided by Peter Marsters.
Could you please compare US subsidies for coal and fossil fuels to US subsidies for renewables, annually over the last 10 years?
At its most basic, this question gets to what, as a nation, do we want to encourage in our energy system beyond what the market produces. Though the answer might seem cut and dried, it’s not as simple as you might think. For example, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program aids households struggling to pay for winter heating, but it encourages carbon-intensive fuel oil. Wind and solar investment and production tax credits encourage more renewable energy on the grid, but they also cost billions of dollars per year. As you might imagine, each subsidy may have different goals, ranging from helping low-income households, to encouraging domestic production of oil and gas, to getting new technologies to scale. The costs and benefits of these goals are sometimes hard to quantify and the topic gets very political, very quickly.
So with that in mind, back to the original question. The image below shows U.S. Energy Information Administration data on direct subsidies from the federal government, which includes tax benefits, grants, loans, or other financial assistance awards made directly to recipients, and also grants, loans, and other financial assistance for research and development.
The data is not annual, but it should give a picture of how priorities have shifted over the last 10 or so years. Generally, the emphasis has shifted from fossil fuel sources to renewables. The overall scale of energy subsidies also depends on the larger context — for example, federal energy spending increased greatly as a part of the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.