Renewables In The Trump Era: Doomed Or Too Big To Fail?
Donald Trump is a big fan of fossil fuels. Renewables not so much.
At a recent rally in Iowa, the President said to much applause, “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes or your factories as the birds fall to the ground.” Iowa is a state that gets more than a third of its net energy from wind production, a higher percentage than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
So what is the future of renewable energy under Donald Trump? Are recent gains made by solar and wind in jeopardy? Or is the momentum these industries have gained over the past eight years made them borderline unstoppable. This week on the Trump on Earth podcast we talked with the man who’s literally writing the book on this topic.
Varun Sivaram has been following following energy policy as the Phillip D. Reed fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Save the Planet(MIT University Press, February 2018). He says that both the wind and the solar industry have kind of come of age in the United States and around the world.
“Wind power generates less than 6 percent of the United State’s electricity. Solar power is around 1 percent. But the progress made just in the last decade has been remarkable. Wind was kind of first out of the gate, but solar recently has been the one making the most gains. And by 2016, in many parts of the world, solar became the cheapest form of electricity on the planet, even cheaper – in many cases – than coal power or natural gas power. The cost of a solar panel has dropped 70 percent just since 2010.”
But is the extent to which renewables have taken off because of government policies or interventions or subsidies? Sivaram says that’s only part of the story.
“In the case of solar, the initial push happened because developed countries like Germany provided a lot of public incentives and subsidies to deploy solar power. Chinese manufacturers really took advantage of that. They ramped up production and managed to drive the cost down considerably. Now costs continue to plunge even though rich countries are pulling back their subsidies. Germany, for example, is slashing its subsidies for solar power. And even though subsidies are falling, the scale of solar panel production is increasing and the scale of solar panel deployment in projects around the world is increasing. That’s driving down costs even further.”
Low-cost panels made in Asia have have driven costs down by around 70% since 2010, enabling more Americans to go solar. But Reuters reported recently that the Trump administration is considering imposing tariffs on panels made overseas so that U.S. manufacturers can be more competitive. The industry is waiting to see how Trump responds, but Siviram thinks it’s not a good idea for a few reasons.
“First, the U.S. has committed to reduce its emissions. President Trump has pledged to pull out of the Paris agreement but he’s not allowed to until 2020, and right now we are bound under an international commitment to reduce our emissions. It’s going to be a lot harder to do that if we can’t deploy solar power at the rate we’ve already been doing. Second, in the effort to protect local manufacturing jobs, by raising the price of imported panels I think President Trump is going about this the wrong way. The right way to encourage a domestic industry in the U.S. is to encourage industries that play to our strengths as the most innovative economy on Earth. That doesn’t mean raising the price of your competitors’ products. That means supporting companies that make even better products. Finally, this trade action is not going to encourage companies to pursue revolutionary technologies. It’s really just going to encourage them to make tried and true old-fashioned solar panels because the competition just got a lot more expensive.”
Solar has had some of the most explosive growth in renewables because of the tremendous cost declines. But there’s also wind energy. Siviram believes wind is going to continue to have respectable growth in the coming years, both onshore and offshore.
“Offshore wind in particular is going to fall in cost really fast. It’s projected to drop 71 percent by 2040. The reason is that oil companies are building up the expertise to stand up these floating wind turbines offshore that are just enormous. The largest wind turbines offshore today pump out about eight megawatts of power. The largest ones in 2025 could pump out 15 megawatts or more. And so that’s going to make wind turbines much more powerful and much cheaper. So even though today less than six percent of U.S. electricity is generated by wind. That number could grow to over 10 percent in the coming decades.”
When asked what the sum of all of Trump’s policies spell for the renewables industry, Siviram says it’s not as bad as some of the alarmist critics have made it out to be. He doesn’t think that President Trump’s intention to pull out of the Paris agreement, or his domestic policies like scrapping the Clean Power Plan, or even some of his actions making it easier to develop and use fossil fuels, are going to have a big effect on the domestic renewables market. But the Trump administration has proposed slashing funding to energy innovation in half. And Siviram says the most audacious proposal was to axe an agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
“This was clearly a political statement by the Trump administration, arguing that the federal government has no business to play in trying to commercialize breakthrough energy technologies. That’s going to hurt the states in the long run, and it’s going to hurt our competitiveness. We are already behind China on the manufacturing of most major clean energy products from solar panels to wind turbines to batteries. We’re not going to get a chance to have a part of that $300 billion dollar clean energy pie that is growing every year unless we invest heavily in innovation. I think that we should be heavily investing in innovation because if you have nuclear reactors that are meltdown proof and super cheap; if you have solar coatings that you could paint onto your wall or roof; if you have ways to capture carbon and then use it to create products out of carbon fiber — these incredible technologies that we could invent and then bring to market could really shake up this entrenched legacy sector. And it’s never too late. We need to do it right now.”
In 2015, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson published a paper arguing that between 2050 and 2055, the U.S could be entirely powered by “clean” energy sources and imagined a future where “no natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed.” Siviram and 19 of his colleagues who study energy closely co-authored a response saying that that wasn’t realistic. As soon as their paper came out, it got pretty heated on the Internet. Siviram and his colleagues were attacked by celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, who accused them of being fossil fuel hacks.
“I was thrilled out of my mind that the Hulk would tweet about me, but we aren’t fossil fuel hacks. We’re a bunch of honest scientists trying to argue that we should be a little more careful when we say that 100 percent renewables is the lowest cost solution. Right now, it’s not. We need a lot of innovation. We all want to get to a place with a lot more renewables. But there are some important actions we should take, and we shouldn’t rule out options. For example, nuclear power in the United States is the largest, clean energy source. It would be unfortunate to shut down your nuclear reactors based on this misplaced faith that we already have all of the renewable solutions we need in order to get to a fully decarbonized economy. And that’s why we thought it was so important to correct the record. Look, we’re all on the same side here. We all want to get to a decarbonized economy. We differ on our means. Let’s have an honest debate.”