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Renewable Energy in a Trumpian Age

January 4, 2017

With the inauguration of a new president days away, advocates of renewable energy must remain vigilant in speaking out against politicians and utility companies who work against one of our utmost priorities as a nation — protecting the environment.

President-elect Trump ran on a platform that advocated the renaissance of the coal industry. He made comments against wind power, saying it “kills the birds,” and campaigned that solar power has “many problems,” one of them being that it’s “so expensive.” Comments like these have led to a feeling of fear and unsureness concerning the future of renewable energies in the United States.

But renewable energy advocates should not be afraid. Despite the words of the incoming president, the progress seen from the renewable energy industry in the last decade alone should lead us all to believe that progress will continue despite impending actions and policies of a new government.

Solar has been on a steady incline over the last decade, and there’s little to no sign that the incoming presidency will halt that progress. Michael Wheeler of San Francisco Recurrent Energy says that “Anybody who thinks that solar is expensive at the utility scale right now hasn’t seen the latest. Solar’s price, because it’s a technology, will continue to go lower and lower.” 

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

In 2016, 6,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar was installed, growing from 4,000 megawatts the year previous. Compared to ten years ago, the power from big solar projects is roughly 70% cheaper. Between 2008 and 2015, utility scale solar farm installation costs dropped 64%, according to the Department of Energy. In the third quarter of 2016, the US installed a record 4.1 GW of solar power, up 191% from the same period last year. Much of this installation boom is due to the Investment Tax Credit that offers solar and wind farms a 30% tax rebate. 

THE POLITICS

One of the largest positive signs from Washington came in December of 2015, before Trump was elected to office. The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) was up for renewal from a Republican congress, and with bipartisan support, the ITC was extended so home and business owners will continue to receive a federal credit for their decision to install solar panels.

Despite a Republican controlled House and Senate, there are still elected officials who have seen the inarguable positivity of renewable energy and will continue to speak out on its behalf, like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. When asked what he would do if Trump were to repeal the wind power tax credit, Grassley responded, “He’ll have to do it over my dead body.” It is elected officials like these that renewable energy advocates must reach out to and support so they can continue fighting for solar and wind power in Washington.

On the state level, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) will continue to benefit the progress of renewable energy industries. 29 states in addition to the District of Columbia partake in RPS which “requires electricity retailers to supply a rising percentage of power from renewable energy sources and accounts for about two-thirds of wind and solar installs in recent years." 

THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THE DEAL

More Americans are currently employed by “the solar industry than on oil rigs or gas fields,” and since 2009, the solar industry has provided one of every eighty jobs, which is expected to double by 2020, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. The marketplace’s demand for cleaner energy can be seen when looking at the recent trends of utility companies across the country. According to the MIT Tech Review, “even unsubsidized solar generation beats coal on price in sun-rich regions.” The utility sector will continue to move towards more use of renewable energy due to its favorable pricing and reduced carbon emissions.

Despite Trump’s claims that he will reinvigorate the coal industry and other fossil fuels, Mark Banteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan at Ann-Arbor says that “coal is dying and renewables are surging, and that is not going to change. Once this bunch figures out where the dollars and jobs are, they will follow.” Between 2010 and 2015, the coal mining industry lost 25,000 jobs. “However, the decline of coal isn’t the result of environmental regulations, it’s the result of market forces. Namely, the fact that coal just can’t compete with cheap renewable energy and natural gas.” Even in more conservative states, like Georgia and Texas, electric utilities are choosing renewables on cost alone

REMAIN AWARE AND EDUCATE YOURSELF

Yuan-Sheng Yu, energy analyst with Lux Research says, “At the end of the day what Trump says and what is actually implemented are two completely different things.” Ultimately Yu is right, though the one aspect of Trump’s campaign platform that remains questionable is his vow to repeal the Clean Power Plan as well as pulling the US from the Paris Agreement.

His recent appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the next EPA administrator is also worrisome. Pruitt has fought to overturn the Clean Power Plan and has been a vocal skeptic of manmade global warming. It’s characters like this landing influential positions in Washington that has many renewable energy supporters concerned. American citizens have the responsibility of remaining as aware and educated, and most importantly, as vocal as possible if the incoming administration tries to take any action that may reduce the already very fine impact the renewable energy industry has made in the last decade.

In spite of his plans to “kill the Clean Power Plan,” Trump also promised to invest $500 billion into American infrastructure. Like Banteau from University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s Energy Institute says, this bunch will also fall in line once they realize where the dollars and jobs are located. Ultimately, Trump ought to see the financial success of solar and wind power, and he “will seize the economic opportunity of renewables.

BACK TO THE COMMUNITY

No matter what happens in Washington, renewable energy has gained massive support at home and internationally. According to John Berger of the Houston Chronicle, “Solar energy in particular enjoys massive support, gives consumers energy options beyond just their monopoly utility and, in many places, is the lowest cost option.” Energy consumers must remember that utility companies are servants of the public — if enough energy consumers request alternative forms of energy rather than fossil fuels and other, dirtier energy sources, utilities will eventually have no choice but to listen to their constituents.

According to the Pew Research Center, solar energy support crosses party lines. 84% of Trump supports and 91% of Clinton supporters are in favor of installing more solar. This should give some peace to those concerned with the future of renewable energies given the claims of the incoming presidency. Energy professor Dan Kammen at UC Berkeley comments, “Sometimes a hostile White House can energize regional efforts.” If citizens rally together at the state level, those in Washington will have no choice but to listen, and act on behalf of those who put them there.

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