Renewable Energy in the Age of Trump: Open for Business

Solar panel installation in Oregon

By Joel Stronberg

“I am white…a woman…pro-choice…educated…The government needs to run like a corporation, simple as that.”
—Trump supporter

In the age of Trump, all sustainability programs and policies will not be equal. Proven technologies and designs will surely be easier to market to the incoming administration than environmental regulation.

Trump’s surrogates would have us believe that he follows in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan. In fact, he patters the path of our 30th president: Calvin Coolidge. 

This was a man remembered mostly for having said:

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.”

Coolidge — given the moniker of Silent Cal — was a progressive union-busting governor from Massachusetts. He became the darling of conservatives.
 
As president, he appointed regulators who would not regulate, pared back the federal budget, reduced taxes, and did his best to keep government out of people’s lives — even the ones who might have benefitted from it.

But for the Silent part, Trump appears anxious to emulate Coolidge and follow his mantra: the business of government is business.

The Business of Sustainability

Fortunately for solar, wind, and efficiency measures and designs, there is business to be had. The business of many businesses today is sustainability.

Not simply pandering to left-leaning liberals, corporate America is learning that renewable energy and increased efficiency in its many forms, e.g. manufacturing and product design, is profitable in many ways.
 
Let me count some of them: job creation, investment opportunity, reduced corporate costs, higher corporate profits, lower monthly utility bills, increased consumer savings and/or greater discretionary spending, technological innovation leading to new product development and manufacturing processes, reduced risk of respiratory problems particularly in the most vulnerable populations, lower health entitlement costs, exportable products leading to improved trade balances, and the respect of other nations.
 
These are not wishes nor exaggerations; they are facts. Though truth may fail to convert a denier, it rarely fails to convince an investor.

Renewable energy and efficiency projects are everywhere. Their reality cannot be denied; their tires can be kicked.

A key issue of the 2016 presidential campaigns was jobs. Losses in the mining and manufacturing sectors have weighed heavily on the minds of American workers, while rising on the list of promised political solutions. Some things, however, cannot be fixed by legislation.

The coal industry cannot be enacted back to health. Many of the manufacturing jobs traveling overseas have done so on a one-way ticket.

Locking American industry in and foreign manufacturers out is not going to work. Like it or not, globalization is here to stay. Trade wars have no victors; there are no spoils to collect.
 
You can no more hold on to American jobs when the economics are elsewhere than you can hold quicksilver in your hand.

President-elect Trump knows this; why else has he put a massive infrastructure program near the top of his priority list? Why, because he knows the future of the nation is intimately tied to innovation and domestic construction.

Coal Jobs Vs. Renewable Energy Jobs

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are proven job creators. The clean energy industry in the U.S. currently employs over 2.5 million people, according to Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a nonpartisan business group.

Today the coal industry employs some 56,700 coal miners across the U.S., down 11,200 from March 2015. Compare this to a recent study by E2 and BW Research in which 89,000 clean energy jobs, in 7,200 businesses, were identified in Ohio alone.
 
According to the report more than 56,000 Ohioans (63.5 percent of the total state clean energy workforce) are employed by firms focused on energy efficiency (EE), including residential and commercial efficiency-related activities, “smart grid” work, and energy storage. These strong results have been achieved even as Ohio was ranked only 25th among the states in energy efficiency for 2014 by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). 

Coal mining jobs peaked at 823,000 in 1923 — the year Warren G. Harding died and Silent Cal was sworn in as president. The last time the number of coal miners equaled the number of Ohioans working in the clean energy/efficiency industry was 1995.
 
In the battle ground states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio, the number of jobs attributable to clean energy, including transportation, is between 1 and 1.5 percent of total employment in each of the states. For Vermont, Massachusetts and California, that range jumps to between 2.4 and 4.3 percent.
 
Trump and his troop of Republicans need to understand that a rollback of federal and state policies, e.g. tax credits and renewable portfolio standards, could throw out of work more people than the Clean Power Plan ever would. 

More to the point, clean energy jobs will continue to grow in the future, unlike coal, which is on a very slippery downward slope — with or without deregulation. On our current path, renewables will account for 50 percent of the U.S. power fleet in 2040.

More Than Just Job Benefits

Jobs are not the only source of vitality that clean energy brings to the U.S. economy. The American Wind Energy Association has released figures showing that in 2015, total capital investment in the industry was $32.7 billion, while annual land lease payments of more than $50 million creating an additional income stream for many farmers.
 
Not all manufacturing has left the building — there are over 500 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. producing products for the wind industry ranging from blade, tower, and turbine assemblies to raw component suppliers. Rather than trying to keep manufacturers at home, risking their competitiveness, why not continue the clean energy transition and expand production facilities in the U.S.?
 
Renewable energy and energy efficiency fits neatly into Trump’s infrastructure plans. While government is about the business of encouraging American enterprise to fix and expand roads, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals — basically the built public environment — why not use the opportunity to do it sustainably?

Surely as a real estate typhoon Trump understands the economic efficiency of building the future into the present. Why invest in obsolescence? The net present value of doing it right far exceeds the cost of doing it wrong.

Proven and soon to be proven possibilities are endless: piezoelectric roads and floors, generators in the water lines, solar panels on the roofs of parking lots, reduced carbon cements, embedded solar heated water pipes under roads and sidewalks creating and capturing thermal energy.

Although I doubt that Trump’s expectation of a no-cost to government infrastructure program is totally realistic, I can see using the tax code through which he intends to attract private investment to also encourage sustainability through innovation. Write the code so that sustainable and innovative designs are rewarded with extra credits.

Shouldn’t the business of government be encouraging business to go forward rather than backward? Why let China profit from the inevitable transition to sustainability?
 
Look for the next in the series when I will be discussing energy efficiency, environmental justice and offering a concept whereby the private sector picks up a substantial part of the check.

Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. This article was originally published on his blog Civil Notion. Read the original.

Main image: Installing panels Credit: Oregon Department of TransportationCC BY 2.0