Donald Trump’s Uncomfortable Relationship with Renewables

Donald Trump, renewables, clean energy, China, Middle East, Leon Kaye, energy policy, solar, wind power
Donald Trump speaking at the Iowa Republican Party’s 2015 Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa.

It’s over. After one of the most contentious primary battles in recent memory, it is going to be an all-New York slugfest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There will be no contested Republican convention in Cleveland this summer, and even though those last few state primaries could “feel the Bern,” it is mathematically impossible for Bernie Sanders to wrest enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination.

So, while the media likely won’t focus on substance but instead on the barbs — or more like the nuclear warheads — full of insults that will be constant in this battle between Hillary and The Donald, there is much at stake in this election.

One issue that has not received much attention this election cycle is energy. In 2008, when the prices of energy and other commodity were soaring, energy policy was one of the larger items of discussion in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. During the primary season, Democrats stepped themselves by touting the virtues of biofuels, while later in the campaign, Sarah Palin’s “drill baby drill” chant became one of the McCain camp’s more memorable rallying cries.

But oil was hovering between $90 and $100 a barrel on average that year, while prices have slumped to about $40 to $45 a barrel now. Eight years ago, solar and wind power were seen as expensive alternatives; now they have become cost competitive with fossil fuels.

Whatever one may think of Hillary Clinton, it cannot be denied that she and her campaign team have thought out the issues. Pick them apart, attack them if you want, but they are there, including her views on what needs to be done on energy and climate change.

Donald Trump, however, is only focusing on seven core issues, including his infamous wall. Forget about Trump’s bombast and whether you agree with him or not — his articulation of the issues is well written, as it should be for a national campaign site. Energy is not on his campaign’s radar; however, reviewing Trump’s past statements on renewables should worry those who work within the industry.

Trump’s views on renewables range from tepid acceptance to hostility; and playing to Hillary Clinton’s missive that she would put “coal miners and coal companies out of business,” he has promised to revive the industry in Appalachia (gaffe or out of context? — read Clinton’s full statement here). The Washington Post, however, has called Trump out for a lack of specifics on how that would work.

On one hand, Trump appears to support federal programs that incentivize wind power deployment, with the caveat that wind turbines “kill a lot of birds.” During a November 2015 campaign stop in Iowa, Trump was asked for his opinion of the Department of Energy’s wind power tax credits:

“I’m fine with it. Any form of energy – we’ve got to get away from the Middle East. I will say, wind is a problem because it’s very expensive to build the towers – very, very expensive. As you know, when you have $40 oil, it’s not economic, so they’re going to have to do a subsidy, otherwise wind isn’t going to work. Wind is a very expensive form of energy, and it’s got problems of storage, and lots of other things. But, I want to see whatever you can do – ethanol, I’m totally in favor … Wind will need subsidies. It’s going to have to have subsidies.” – Donald Trump in Newton, Iowa, Nov. 19, 2015

On the other hand, Trump viciously attacked wind power if he felt it could negatively impact his business. His relationship with the Scottish government soured when offshore wind farms became central to Scotland’s energy policy, as part of its plan to wean itself away from fossil fuels. One of those wind farms was 1.5 miles out to sea in Aberdeen Bay, and Trump sued to halt the construction of the 11 wind turbines as he felt they would mar local scenery and therefore hurt business at a golf course and resort he planned for the area. Last December, Trump lost his legal battle to prevent construction of the wind farm, and the evidence suggests that locals have more angst over the promised jobs that never materialized than any worry over how offshore wind turbines would spoil their view.

What should really worry the clean-energy industry, however, is what a Trump administration could do to the solar power sector. True, Trump is often quoted for not being a “big believer in climate change.” But forget about his past claim that climate change is a “hoax,” and statement that the concept of global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” (Trump later claimed that comment was a joke, but the tweet is still online.) Trump’s team has said little about renewables period, but it is interesting to note that his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, lobbied for solar power companies in the past. While Trump has been dismissive of solar power, describing it as “not exactly a good investment,” his tone toward this technology is at worst dismissive.

But what could harm the solar business in a world in which Trump is president is if he succeeds in implementing what he describes as “reforms” to rewrite the business and trade relationship between China and the U.S. Although he has tried to backtrack from his comments regarding China-U.S. trade, he told the New York Times’ editorial board that goods imported from China should be taxed at a rate of 45 percent.

Trump could say, as he always does, that such a tariff rate is open to negotiation, but what would high tariffs do to America’s solar industry? TriplePundit asked Zachary Shahan, director and chief editor of CleanTechnica and a renewables and clean technology expert, what, if any, impact that such a tariff — which presumptively would apply to photovoltaic panels and other equipment made in China and exported to the U.S. — would have on America’s renewables industry.

“I think it would have a significant effect,” Shahan wrote in an email exchange with TriplePundit. “Chinese modules still account for many if not most of the modules being installed in the U.S., and that is due in part to low manufacturing costs and massive investments in solar panel factories in China.

“To slap a huge tariff on those would raise the price of solar in the U.S., hurting industry growth, and since most of the solar jobs are actually in installation, the result would likely be a big net loss for U.S. jobs.”

Shahan also noted that jobs in the solar sector are surging in the U.S., but that could grind to a halt if Trump succeeds in raising tariffs on solar equipment shipped from China.

“Note that there will likely be more solar jobs added in the U.S. in 2016 than oil jobs. This is a huge industry,” Shahan continued. “In 2015, the U.S. solar industry added jobs approximately 12 times faster than the rate at which other industries created jobs, according to some reports. The solar industry added 35,052 new jobs last year — bringing the total number of solar jobs in the U.S. up to 208,859. That was 1.2 percent of new jobs, or approximately 1 out of 83 new jobs in the country.”

Shahan also pointed out another nuance: Because of the large duties already imposed on Chinese solar products, some companies in the industry have been searching for a workaround. Solar factories have started to emerge in Thailand, for example. Such a scenario for solar companies is similar to what other industries, from those making the cheapest products to those within the heavy manufacturing sector, would endure if such high tariffs became the reality. Companies would scramble in order to move manufacturing to countries like Thailand or Vietnam — but such a shift could not happen fast enough for solar companies in the U.S. to stay cost-competitive or even viable. The result would hurt many solar installers, which rely on Chinese-made solar panels to launch these projects across the country.

“Trump could just impose tariffs on Chinese companies, which I imagine would be pretty drastic,” Shahan said. “The current big solar panel manufacturers in the U.S. are SunPower and First Solar. But the top 10 list is dominated by Chinese companies.”

It is true that election-season rhetoric is often quite different once a new president takes office and has to deal with Congress and, of course, D.C. politics. But if we are to surmise the Republican nominee’s take on energy policy based on his past statements, the future outlook for renewables in the U.S. with Trump as the nation’s 45th president is at best uncertain — and uncertainty is a condition no business in any sector wants to face, especially within such a relatively new sector as renewables.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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