The election of Donald Trump sent shock waves across blue California, where we now appear to be the mirror image of the rest of the country. One could argue the most visible gulf between the blue left coast and red middle America are social issues such as gay marriage or legal pot. Instead, I would argue it is energy production where the divide may be greatest.
Trump has voiced clear support for the status quo centralized power grid infrastructure, specifically bringing back the coal industry. He is also promoting greater energy independence by stripping away regulation to promote more extraction of fossil fuels. He also has claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by China and that he hates wind power.
These are clear signs about what Trump’s priorities will be, and his Cabinet selections support his apparent biases.
California, interestingly enough, is headed in the other direction, aiming to generate more than half our electricity from carbon-free sources by 2030. Is Sacramento heading for a collision with the nation’s capital? Or can California – and other states such as New York – continue to push forward with an alternative vision of the future where citizens become a real part of the solution with solar on their rooftops, batteries in the basement and electric vehicles in the garage?
Having covered energy markets for 30 years, I have discovered that figuring out what is left vs. right on the political spectrum within the insular world of energy is no easy task.
Republicans allegedly support free markets, yet it was a Democrat – Jimmy Carter – who started the trend toward privatization of our power supply. In 1976, he signed a law allowing private companies to build power plants and own them. It was a reaction to the boondoggles attached to nuclear power plants, and the near-automatic pass through of cost overruns to captive utility ratepayers. This pass-through policy indirectly led to the closure of Rancho Seco in Sacramento, shuttered by local citizen vote in 1989 largely on economic grounds.
Republicans always seem to support nuclear power, even though one could argue it receives more government subsidies than any other power source. But organized labor has traditionally aligned with utilities and supported conventional ways to generate power, including nuclear power. In contrast, many clean energy companies historically employed nonunionized labor and supported greater completion so they could get a larger slice of the power production pie.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that a fragile consensus has emerged in California today among utilities, labor and environmental groups that phasing out nuclear and large-scale fossil fuel plants makes sense, as does shifting to renewable energy and creative ways to distribute and manage energy. Much of Europe agrees, as well as countries as diverse as Japan, Australia and India.
What’s at stake today?
According to Bloomberg Energy Finance, investments in clean energy such as solar and wind power topped $329 billion last year. In the U.S., more than 60 percent of all new power supplies last year came from renewable energy sources. Polls show more than 80 percent of all voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents – support solar and wind power.
Still, the Midwest has been wracked by the closure of 94 coal-fired plants last year with another 41 expected to shut down this year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Shifting gears to go back in time to rescue the coal industry would seem to be an economic and environmental disaster, and suspect politically as well. But Trump has promised to put coal miners back to work.
Perhaps the biggest impact of Trump’s election will be the fate of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, a primary policy tilting markets to cleaner sources of energy.
Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma does raise the blood pressure of anyone concerned about global climate change. With Pruitt an avid opponent of environmental regulation, it seems that the Clean Power Plan is doomed. Yet even if Pruitt kills the Clean Power Plan, this will have very little impact on California, since we only rely upon coal for approximately 3 percent of our electricity supply. Of course, California does not live in a bubble when it comes to climate change. Killing the Clean Power Plan will clearly have a global impact that California alone cannot mitigate.
Equally troubling is the nomination of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has previously proposed eliminating the Department of Energy, as that agency’s new boss. Continuing a trend of perceived conflicts of interest, Perry sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access LLC, which is embroiled in the dispute of crude oil pipeline development crossing Native American lands. Add in the nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and there is a clear and disturbing trend of foxes guarding the hen house.
Perhaps the most troubling impact of Trump’s priorities on energy, as evidenced by his Cabinet nominations, is a rushed approach to rolling back regulations. Ill-framed regulations can stunt innovation; well-designed policy can grow markets. Recent studies suggest methane leaks from our natural gas infrastructure could accelerate threats attached to global climate change, contaminate drinking water and destroy wilderness landscapes.
The winds of change?
Some observers argue Trump alone can’t stop what appears to be an inevitable shift toward renewable energy and advanced networking grid technologies that will make our electric grid look more like the internet. I agree. His actions, and priorities, can slow down this shift, but technology is not owned by any political party.
Furthermore, renewables generate more jobs per unit of energy than fossil fuels, a fact validated by many studies, including one I did for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies of Sacramento several years ago. If Trump is serious about smart economic development in public infrastructure, then he should look to renewables rather than fossil fuel development as the best path forward.
Trump won the election on a promise of change. Turning back the clock to prop up technologies and fuels with negative environmental impacts and short life spans is not the kind of change that puts America first. Coal plants are being retired in the U.S. not because of unfair competition, but because they don’t make economic, environmental or strategic sense. To subsidize coal at this point would be foolhardy and a gross misuse of our taxpayer dollars.
A bold energy strategy for the country would be to follow the California blueprint, especially when it comes to the smaller, cleaner and smarter power sources that can truly democratize our energy economy. While that seems like wishful thinking, the reality is that California and the clean energy economy will not be derailed by new government priorities because citizens, corporations and investors have already placed their bets.
What’s good for the environment on energy also is good for the economy. The sooner Trump comes to grip with this reality, the better. If his Cabinet nominations are any indication, the new president has a lot to learn about how to best support job growth through energy policy. Let’s hope that in the process of educating himself he doesn’t doom the planet by giving away the store to the fossil fuel lobby.
Peter Asmus has been covering energy issues for more than 25 years. He is author of several books, including “Introduction to Energy in California” (University of California Press). Learn more at peterasmus.com.