What Does Trump Mean for Renewables and Climate Policy?

As the United States prepares for the inauguration of Donald Trump, those who work on renewable energy and climate change policy are fearful—and with good reason.

The good news is that solar, wind and renewable energy (RE) will continue to grow in the near term—the bad news, for those of us working to foster a clean energy transition, is that President-elect Trump is an avowed climate-change denier who has assembled a radically anti-environmental cabinet. The incoming administration looks ready to savage the Paris Accord, slash federal clean-tech research, and destroy decades of bipartisan environmental progress.

But before we go dark, let’s look at some good news: wind and solar have become the fastest growing sources of new power in the US. In the best locations, electricity from utility-scale wind is approaching cost-parity with natural gas and coal. And some energy analysts expect that solar and wind will become cheaper than even coal-fired power plants in the next decade.

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More good news on the electricity side: The challenges of integrating intermittent renewable generators into the grid are fading in the face of a more flexible power system that uses demand management, diverse resources linked by transmission, fast-ramping natural gas generators, and, increasingly, grid-scale batteries and storage.

State Renewable Standards and Federal Tax Credits Should Survive

At the state level, we see evidence that intelligent deployment and integration of utility-scale and distributed resources can blow through old ceilings: California now receives 27% of state power demand from renewable sources and is on track to reach 33% by 2020 and 50% by 2030. Smaller, distributed energy resources (DERs), usually located close to the customer, are also proving to be a boon to clean energy.

Another piece of good news is that the two primary ways we provides incentives to encourage RE in the US—state-level renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and federal investment tax credits—seem secure (for the moment).

Looking at RPSs, which are state-level requirements that utilities generate or procure power from a wide range of renewable sources, 29 US states have put these programs into place—and an additional eight states have weaker RE goals.

Sure, certain states, such as Kansas, have turned RPS into voluntary goals, but despite a major Koch-funded effort to go after renewable standards, state requirements for renewable power have proven difficult to reverse—even in Republican-dominated states. And not only are these laws looking secure, but in many large states (e.g., California, and New York) the standards have been increased.

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At the federal level the two major programs that support clean power, the production tax credit (PTC) for wind, and the investment tax credit (ITC) for RE equipment more generally, were renewed last year by the GOP-led Congress. Because these tax credits enjoy bipartisan support the new administration seems unlikely to repeal them—but of course this could change.

Ok, that’s the good news; now, let’s turn to the scary stuff.

Big Threats to Renewable Research and Environmental Protection Loom

The first fact we need to acknowledge is that despite a quick meeting with Al Gore, Trump has nominated a rogue’s gallery of climate-deniers, fossil-fuel advocates and anti-environmentalists for key roles in his incoming administration. The most disturbing choices include Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA and Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy—but other key roles are also set to be filled by anti-environmentalists.

At the international level, Trump’s stated intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord could greatly complicate global efforts to reduce carbon emissions—but with China, India, the EU and 122 other nations having ratified the agreement, the US will face stiff international pressure (and perhaps even tariffs) if it withdraws from the agreement.

Looking out a few years, the most dangerous threat posed by the incoming administration is also the least visible: the destruction of US federal research on the scientific underpinnings of climate change, and the evisceration of support for clean-tech research.

The pre-inauguration moves by the Trump Administration to identify federal employees involved with climate change are chilling and point towards a regime that would rather hide under obfuscation than understand the science—but at least scientists are rallying now to protect important datasets.

It will take some time, but, if their goal is to attack federal clean-tech research, the Trump Administration will be able to savage support for critical programs at the National Labs, the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD) and, perhaps, even NASA. If this happens, it will not only harm the scientific research that we need to understand Earth’s systems, it will disrupt development of advanced technologies that private companies are not yet able to field.

It’s possible that other governments will step up their funding for GCC research. It’s also possible that private research efforts, such as that recently announced by the Gates Foundation, can take up some of the slack—but nothing can currently replace the amazing work being done by NOAA, NASA, DOD and the many labs affiliated with DOE.

The US is a high-energy society that will require plenty of fossil fuels for years to come—and so programs to improve the safety and efficiency of shale gas or domestic oil could be beneficial. But as our global peers, like China, poor billions of dollars into clean energy, slashing US research efforts to support clean energy would be foolish in the extreme. Hopefully the incoming administration will realize that not only do these research and policy efforts protect our environment, they protect our economy, and create sustainable US jobs.