Some of the fireworks we can expect to see in Washington, D.C. soon will have nothing to do with the Fourth of July. They will be fireworks of the political kind over the future of America’s vast and vital electric system.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry lit the fuses last April when he ordered a study on whether federal support for wind and solar energy is making our electric system less reliable by forcing the retirement of coal- and nuclear-fired power plants.
This is not an insignificant issue. Energy is the lifeblood of our economy, the foundation of our quality of life and fundamental to national security. It matters where we get it, how reliable and secure it is, whether it enhances our energy independence and how it affects the quality of our air, land, water and climate. Now, new technologies, market forces and security concerns are challenging our dependence on fossil fuels and forcing a confrontation with some of the richest companies in history at a time when money is allowed an undue influence on public policy.
It is premature to judge a study before it is published, but Perry’s public statements have triggered concerns that this one is being done without sufficient transparency and public input, and that its real purpose is to support President Trump’s ill-advised plans to establish world dominance in the production and export of fossil fuels.
Trump has not shown much love for renewable energy options like wind and solar power, although that is the direction the rest of the world is moving. During last year’s campaign, he called renewable energy a “big mistake” and “just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.” It doesn’t seem to bother him that an overwhelming majority of citizens don’t agree. A new survey by Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of Americans agree that “increasing use of renewable energy resources is a top or important priority for the country’s energy policies.”
Unfortunately, it is common practice for a president’s team to affirm his preconceptions and misconceptions rather than speaking truth to power. Trump’s team appears to be creating a sycophantic echo chamber on energy policies. The science that contradicts the President’s dismissal of climate change and underscores the need for a transition to clean and sustainable energy is being dissed and defunded. Climate cynics occupy key posts in the Administration while federal climate scientists are getting pink slips.
So, it’s no surprise that clean energy advocates suspect that Perry’s study is designed to add to the echo chamber. A simple test of the study’s credibility will be whether its conclusions have been validated in a rigorous peer review.
The bigger question is why Trump is so out of touch with the American people, the international community, reputable science, and market trends. Bias and bad advice are part of the answer. Money might be a factor, too.
A fresh example of bad advice is a blog written by one of Trump’s former campaign advisors and published on-line last week. Stephen Moore, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and until recently a contributor to Fox News, wrote glowingly that Trump’s energy plan — which would give oil, coal and gas producers free reign to operate without important environmental constraints — will make America the world’s new Saudi Arabia. Moore’s arguments are a litany of alternative facts and zombie logic – the old-think that keeps rising from the grave when we thought that real facts killed it long ago. Here are a few of many examples, with Moore’s arguments shown in italics:
Wind and solar power will be unviable for years to come because of low natural gas prices: Actually, unsubsidized wind and solar energy are already viable in a rapidly growing number of markets around the world. The World Economic Forum reports that electricity from unsubsidized wind and solar is competitive with coal in more than 30 countries and could achieve grid parity in two-thirds of the world within the next few years. Nasdaq concurs, saying that solar technologies are generating electricity at lower cost than new coal, nuclear and combined-cycle natural gas plants. Despite low natural gas prices, wind and solar energy accounted for more than 60 percent of all new electric generation capacity in the U.S. last year, as well as 55 percent of new global power capacity, the most ever recorded according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
We are entering an age of American (fossil) energy renaissance that will last for decades: Prolonging our unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels is not a renaissance. Although natural gas could be an important transition fuel if the industry dealt with its methane emissions and fracking controversies, there are legitimate uncertainties about how long fossil fuels will dominate our energy mix. Underground reserves are no longer good indicators of how long the carbon era will last. Not all proved reserves can be economically extracted and what’s economical is changing. The falling costs of solar and wind power, the carbon pricing already used in 40 countries, declining shareholder confidence in traditional energy companies, and the world’s resolve to slow climate change are among the market forces likely to keep much of the reserves in the ground.
Renewable energy is expensive, unreliable and a “bad” bet. ― If that’s true, then a lot of CEOs should be fired right now. A recent study found that 63 percent of America’s largest 100 companies have created renewable energy goals. Nearly 200 of the Fortune 500 companies saved about $4 billion last year by betting on 80,000 emission-cutting investments.
Many states and cities, red and blue, have pledged to get 100 percent of their energy from renewables in the years ahead. Why? In addition to better air quality and public health, solar and wind power are creating new jobs 12 times faster than the overall economy. Governors from both political parties have advised Trump that renewables are paying off in rural areas where he did well in last year’s election. “The nation’s wind and solar resources are transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act over 150 years ago,” red and blue-state governors recently told Trump in a recent letter.
Without billions upon billions of government mandates, tax credits, production subsidies, and other tax giveaways, there would be virtually no wind and solar industry today in the United States. – Like many other emerging technologies in U.S. history, renewable energy has been given a leg up by federal subsidies. The rapid progress of solar and wind technologies shows the subsidies are paying off. Besides, government assistance that helps beneficial new technologies break into the marketplace makes a lot more sense than the billions of dollars mature fossil fuel industries have been receiving for generations. By 2009, fossil fuels had received nearly $450 billion in taxpayer subsidies in the United States while renewable energy received about $6 billion, according to research by the investment firm DBL Investors. Now, federal subsidies for renewable energy are being phased out, but there is no visible momentum in the White House or Congress to phase out subsidies for oil, gas and coal.
The real renaissance waiting for Trump’s leadership is the modernization of the electric grid. It is considered the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century and the largest integrated machine on Earth. But it has aged, improved energy technologies are making it obsolete, and it’s increasingly vulnerable to power interruptions from worsening weather and cyberattack. In its 2017 report card on the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded that our electric system deserves no more than a D+ today, that power lines have exceeded their life expectancy, and that we need to find an additional $177 billion to upgrade the system by 2025.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the grid so that it supports today’s clean energy technologies and the growing number of customers who like to produce their own electricity. The ASCE concurs. It says that “increased investment in alternative sources of energy for power generation, heating and cooling, transportation, and process industries is needed for a sustainable future.” These investments are lagging mostly because of the lack of a solid federal energy policy, the ASCE says.
In regard to money, the financial disclosure report that candidate Trump submitted to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) last year listed investments in a variety of fossil energy companies including ExxonMobil, Canadian Oil Sands LTD, Conoco Phillips and Halliburton. Since then, Trump has said he’s sold off stocks that might be considered conflicts of interest, but he reportedly has not offered specifics.
In addition, fossil energy companies were generous contributors to the more than $100 million spent on Trump’s Inauguration. Inaugural Committee records filed with the FEC show that Chevron, Exxon, British Petroleum and Citgo Petroleum each contributed a half million dollars; coal giant Murray Energy contributed $300,000; the CEO of the company that developed the Dakota Access Pipeline gave $250,000; coal plant developer White Stallion Energy donated $175,000; and $100,000 each came from the fracking company Continental Resources and from additional oil companies including Valero Energy Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum.
Politico reported in April that a dozen of the President’s advisers and White House staff also are invested in fossil energy companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron. Politico’s review of financial disclosure forms concluded that six of Trump’s senior advisors hold millions of dollars in energy company stocks.
If Trump wants to be the president that leads America in an energy renaissance, there are several things he should do differently. He should build on rather than reverse his predecessors’ clean energy work, he should add renewable energy experts to his advisors, he should prove that neither he nor the members of his team have vested interests that bias their work on energy policy, he should rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, he should stop emasculating federal science and clean energy programs, he should develop a roadmap for America’s transition to a competitive clean energy economy, and he should bury the energy zombies once and for all.
Donald Trump has become president at a historic inflection point in which the world needs to end energy poverty; the United States needs to modernize its power system; and everyone must act quickly to fend off irreversible climate instability. The question is whether Trump is the right president for this moment in history. So far, the answer is “no”.