California exempts solar energy equipment from its property tax. The exemption will last until 2025. The California Wind Energy Association has complained that this exemption puts solar energy at an artificial advantage relative to other renewables such as windmills. Biomass, the use of biological materials such as wood and leftover crops, is also at a relative disadvantage.
Rather than eliminate the solar tax exemption, the other energy industries should seek to eliminate the property tax on all energy capital goods. With this exemption, the government of California is recognizing that property taxes on capital goods – buildings, machines, equipment, inventory – impose costs that reduce production and innovation. Since this tax is toxic, the property tax should be removed from all improvements.
The best revenue neutral tax shift would be to increase the property-tax revenue from land value by the same amount as the reduction in the taxation of capital goods.
The other energy industry chiefs call the solar property-tax exemption a subsidy. We need to distinguish between absolute and relative subsidies. An absolute subsidy occurs when government provides grants to firms, or limits competition. A relative subsidy occurs when one firm or industry receives a greater subsidy than its competitors. All absolute subsidies are also relative subsidies, because they exist relative to the rest of the economy. But if the subsidy is not in funds or protection, but from lower rates on industry-destructive taxes, this is a relative but not an absolute subsidy.
Suppose that there are patients in a hospital suffering from continuous poisoning. The doctor stops poisoning one patient, and he recovers. But the other patients are still being poisoned. The other patients complain that it is not fair for one patient to be singled out for favored treatment. But the just remedy is not to resume poisoning the recovered patient, but to stop poisoning the others. The taxation of capital goods is economic poison, which the state recognizes would poison the solar energy industry they seek to promote. But why poison the other industries? The property tax should exempt all capital goods, all improvements.
A broader issue is the subsidies to energy. All forms of energy, except human muscles, are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Energy from oil and coal are implicitly subsidized by exempting them from the social costs of their environmental destruction. There is no economic need for any subsidies. But to obtain the true costs of energy, governments should also eliminate taxes not only on their capital goods but also on their incomes and sales. We cannot know whether renewable energy can stand on its own until we eliminate all the government interventions, including taxes, subsidies, and excessive regulations.
Since a radical restructuring of public finances is politically impossible today, a politically feasible reform would be to exempt all capital goods investments from the property tax. If this needs to be revenue-neutral, California could replace its cap-and-trade policy with levies on emissions. The relative subsidy to solar power is unfair to the other energy industries, but the real unfairness is the property tax on their investments.
This article first appeared at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/the-california-solar-energy-property-tax-exemption/