Trump's energy vision holds plenty of promise for renewables

ANALYSIS: The Republican's victory wasn't the result the renewables sector wanted but all is not lost, argues Karl-Erik Stromsta

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president is not the news the global wind and solar sectors hoped to wake up to – but it’s also not cause for despair.

If there’s one thing that’s long been clear when it comes to Trump and renewables, it’s that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. That’s bad news on many levels, of course, but in a sense it’s also cause for optimism.

Trump and his advisers are about to get an education in many areas, including the realities of the energy industry. When that happens he will come to understand that not only is blind opposition to wind and solar power irrational – it’s also terrible politics, even in the most conservative corners of the US.

While climate change – bafflingly – remains a live political issue in the US, renewable energy does not. The American public, Trump voters included, is overwhelmingly supportive of wind and solar today, and that support will continue to deepen and become more well-informed over time.

According to a very recent and heartening poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, seven in ten Trump supporters want to see more coal mining in the US – a view surely tied to the mistaken belief that given just a little more political support, the coal sector is ready to create lots of good-paying US jobs.

The flip side of that, however, is that three in ten Trump supporters are opposed to more coal mining – not an insubstantial proportion.

Meanwhile, one area of overwhelming consensus across the political spectrum is renewables. Pew’s polling, conducted only a few weeks ago, found that 77% of Trump supporters want to see more wind farms in the US, and 88% support more solar. That compares to 88% and 91% of Clinton supporters backing more wind and solar, respectively.

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Those figures are astonishing. It’s hard to find any issue that attracts such high levels of support – and agreement – within the American political arena.

The reality is that many of the most conservative states in the US – from Texas to the Dakotas – are also the states with the most installed wind capacity, the states with the most wind-related jobs, and the states whose citizens have the most experience living among wind farms.

Utility-scale solar is just beginning to take off in many Republican-controlled parts of the country, but support for the sector is likely to be just as strong.

The top line in Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” is: “Make America energy-independent, create millions of new jobs, and protect clean air and clean water.”

It then says, “We will conserve our natural habitats, reserves and resources. We will unleash an energy revolution that will bring vast new wealth to our country.”

Stopping there, one might assume he is making the case for renewables. At the very least, there would seem to be a lot more for foreign oil producers to fear in Trump's energy vision than domestic wind and solar players.

True, Trump has plenty of nice things to say about coal, fracking and the oil industry generally, and far fewer nice things to say about renewables. But it’s no stretch to imagine that as he and his team gain a more nuanced view of the transition underway across the US energy industry, they will come to realise that clearest path to meeting many of their goals – including energy independence and rapid job creation – runs through 21st century renewable energy.

Clearly, renewable energy will have a tougher ride under a Trump presidency than it would have under Hillary Clinton.

There are steps Trump has indicated he will take which would dent the US renewables market over the medium and long term. Most worryingly, he has pledged to take an axe to the Clean Power Plan, which would give renewables a new tailwind in the 2020s – just as the wind Production Tax Credit and solar Investment Tax Credit are set to fade away.

At the global level, pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change would be tragic and deeply harmful, undoing or at least undermining the herculean diplomatic efforts that have taken things this far.

For renewables, Trump’s election is cause for concern – but it’s no emergency. The industry has the same momentum and inherent long-term advantages it had yesterday.

It's undoubtedly a new day and a new era for American politics, and it will be a bumpy ride. But one thing is certain: There will be vastly more wind and solar installed in the US on the day Trump leaves the Oval Office as on the day he walks in.