Solar Power in the Age of TrumpPhoto by Pool/Getty Business Features Donald Trump
The election of Donald J. Trump may have stymied the preemptive hopes of solar energy advocates and left industry groups with more questions than answers on the future of renewable energy in the United States. After all, Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had championed the expansion of solar energy during his tenure in the Oval Office. In 2016 alone, the solar industry was responsible for the creation of one out of every 50 new jobs, and now employs more than twice as many Americans than the coal sector.
Trump’s election rival, Hillary Clinton, was poised to continue with a similar growth strategy, and individual states and private businesses were banking on a continuation of tax incentives beyond 2016. Now, a full month into the Trump administration, states are preparing to take action on ensuring solar’s future with or without the federal government’s assistance.
Discerning Trump’s personal stance on the matter is a guessing game until an actual policy gets rolled out—Trump the campaigner held views on any given day that could be perceived as favorable or hostile toward solar. For example, the president previously voiced his support for an all-hands-on-deck energy policy that promotes jobs and curbs excessive taxes and regulations, both of which are accomplishable under a number of potential economic frameworks. On the other hand, Trump has securely situated his administration into the arms of Big Oil with the appointments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (not yet confirmed) and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
So what is to be made of such conflicting and seemingly incompatible policy positions?
A Hazy Forecast on the Horizon
Clean energy supporters are quick to point out that one of the first moves the new administration made upon taking office was scrubbing government websites of policies and ideas that were considered antithetical to the incoming president’s views. One of those domain victims was the federal government’s page on energy, which had previously mentioned renewables. However, Trump’s current version, titled “An America First Energy Plan,” speaks only of independence from foreign oil and his commitment to “clean coal.”
Despite having its best year on record, Trump has now publicly relegated solar to the backseat. Further, solar stocks took huge hits after election day. The industry is now trying to avert a scenario where the rug is pulled from underneath its once-sturdy foundation.
CNBC pointed out that Trump’s 2015 book, “Crippled America,” spoke quite negatively of renewable energy, even going so far as to call climate change caused by carbon emissions a “mistaken belief” and the drive toward clean energy “an expensive way of making tree-huggers feel good about themselves.”
Trump’s talk on curtailing investments in renewables such as solar may be significant, but the larger ax currently being wielded by the new administration is in the hands of his appointees. Rex Tillerson—the former CEO of ExxonMobil—was paramount to brokering production and investment deals with oil-rich Russia before taking his seat as Secretary of State. Opponents of Tillerson’s appointment believe that he’s simply too close to the oil industry to reasonably consider the prospects and benefits of solar.
Beyond Tillerson, Scott Pruitt is a noted climate change denier and has already halted conferences, research and data collection on many renewable energy projects. Pruitt has also been a leading critic of the EPA, the very agency he now leads, and several times has sued the federal government to prevent the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, according to Solar Industry Magazine.
Though only a month in office, these appointments have produced a cloud of apprehension on just how far the government will go in preventing solar’s growth, if it in fact does. The fate of the solar industry may lie in how active Pruitt intends to be and whether he will entrench the EPA in his anti-science beliefs.
Hopeful for a Trump Bump
Despite certain misgivings with how the election turned out, it’s not entirely infeasible for solar advocates to see silver linings in Trump’s victory. Most point to the fact that Trump’s views on substantive policy issues tend to waver, and at their core, hinge upon creation of American jobs. In this light, it’s perfectly sensible for Trump to implement policies that support further growth in solar; few industries are doing more to produce American jobs, and this would allow Trump to claim victory and fulfill campaign promises.
Similarly, the solar industry is operating with a lot of the wind at its back (not to be confused with wind power), with global consumption of renewable energy to rise faster than any other energy source through 2040 based on the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook. Derailing such a positive trajectory could be somewhat difficult, with or without federal intervention.
In recent weeks, a majority of states have voiced their intention to fuel solar growth at a local level if federal incentives dry up—even Republican governors in Illinois and Michigan are on board with this plan. CleanTechnica also found that 70 percent of Trump voters support clean energy policies, meaning that Trump could simultaneously appeal to his conservative base while reaching across the aisle to progressives clamoring for action on climate initiatives.
At stake are trillions of dollars of future private-sector (and tax) revenue and hundreds of thousands of American jobs—a task that Trump in many regards is itching to achieve. And much like how the stock market benefited from a perceived “Trump Bump”—the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached 20,000 for the first time in history—such a phenomenon could likewise aid the clean energy sector.
If Trump’s maverick-style of doing business translates to effective action on renewables—eschewing advice from cabinet members and many high-ranking party officials—he has the potential to reap the rewards of greater energy independence and job growth, which dovetails into a stronger national security and the American-made model he seeks to follow.
What is clear is that solar may be temporarily injured by anti-solar restrictions (if this happens at all), but in the long term, and throughout Trump’s tenure, the industry will prevail in spite of government inaction, or, even better, achieve record-breaking success with Trump’s hearty support.