Donald Trump’s desire to pollute America’s skies with millions of tons of poisonous gases from coal-fired generating plants is running into a problem. It costs too much money. In many so-called red states that voted for Trump, the demand for solar power is rising and creating jobs faster than any other sector of the economy, according to research by Greentech Media.
“Climate change has never come up in any discussion about why we would do a project,” said Matt Beasley, chief marketing officer for Silicon Ranch Corp, a solar developer based in Nashville, Tennessee. “It is always about the economics.”
The coal industry likes to complain that subsidies for renewable energy are unfair and a waste of taxpayer money. But in fact they have done precisely what they were intended to do — support new technology that is vitally important to the nation until prices fall far enough to make it more broadly viable without incentives.
And there is another side to the story. Those incentives have driven a surge in jobs in the renewable energy industry. Today, more than 300,000 Americans are employed in the renewable energy sector — 6 times the number working in the coal industry.
“The expansion of solar and other clean technologies has created thousands of jobs and reduced emissions,“ said Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. ”Once these technologies have reached a competitive position in the energy market, a gradual reduction in incentives is an appropriate way to approach their sustained growth.”
Of the 10 states that installed the largest amounts of solar power over the past year, 6 were red states with Republican-controlled governments, according to GTM Research. Utah, North Carolina, and Texas each installed more than 1 gigawatt of solar, or enough to power about 700,000 homes.
The coal hawks would have people believe that the money spent on renewable energy incentives is wasted, but it has a significant multiplier effect on local economies. “We have invested $734 million in incentives,” says Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada. “I’m the first to acknowledge that’s a big investment, but that has attracted a return of $7 billion.” Is there anyone who would be unhappy with a 10 to 1 return on an investment?
Recently, Reuters surveyed 32 utility companies that operate in mostly rural, conservative states. All of them indicated they had no interest in building new coal-powered generating plants. That includes Ameren in Mississippi, which plans to add 100 megawatts of solar power in the next decade.
Solar capacity at co-ops, which are not-for-profit utilities owned by their customers, has tripled in the last 3 years, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Most of America’s co-op utilities are located in rural areas that voted in favor of Trump in the last election.
The industry is now waiting to see how Trump will act on the recent decision by the US International Trade Commission that found two US companies were harmed by low solar cell prices imported from other countries, mostly China. The administration could use that decision to slap new tariffs on imported solar cells that would significantly increase the price of solar panels sold in America.
While that is certainly a possibility, solar enjoys strong support from Republicans in Congress, most of whom voted in favor of reauthorizing the current renewable energy tax credits in 2015. High tariffs would blunt the impact of those incentives and frustrate the intent of Congress.
What will Trump do? Considering his only pronouncements on the subject of renewable energy consist of statements that renewables “are very expensive” and that wind turbines “kill all the birds — all the birds,” whatever he decides to do will have little if any connection to reality.