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United States

United States

'The first thing we know is that we don't know'

UNITED STATES: Vague, if not downright contradictory, policy proposals leave the US wind-power industry unsure of the likely impact of a Donald Trump presidency on American energy generation.

Shock win…President-elect Donald Trump's opposition to wind power is well known, but the industry is hoping demand for clean energy and jobs will win out (pic: Michael Vadon)
Shock win…President-elect Donald Trump's opposition to wind power is well known, but the industry is hoping demand for clean energy and jobs will win out (pic: Michael Vadon)

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to cancel Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP), pull out of the Paris climate accord and dismantle or gut the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The appointment of climate-change denier Myron Ebell to oversee the EPA transition team is a signal that Trump is not all bluster, while billionaire fracker, Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, is a leading candidate for energy secretary.

But there is clean-energy momentum in America, especially if Trump only lasts one four-year term. The production tax credit (PTC), the major driver of wind until the early 2020s, is expected to stand because it is being phased out anyway.

The credit is not a partisan issue, and last December was extended by a Republican Congress. The details, such as when construction must start, are expected to be too "granular" for the Trump administration to bother changing, given major issues such as trade with China and the wall on the border with Mexico, said David Burton, a partner at law firm Mayer & Brown.

Fortune 100 corporations are buying wind power because of demands from their shareholders and customers. Microsoft and General Motors (GM) announced major wind power buys since the 8 November election.

Will anything change when Trump takes office in January? "Sustainability makes good business sense. We're going to continue walking down that path," said Rob Threlkeld, GM's global manager for renewable energy.

Much of the impetus for wind-power development is at state rather than federal level, too. California, for example, has set a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 50%, and its climate change plan is the nation's most ambitious.

"We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time - devastating climate change," said Governor Jerry Brown after the election.

Into the unknown

Much about Trump's policies is unknown; his campaign was unorthodox and his comments contradictory.

Will he stand in the way of the US's renewable-energy momentum, or, as a businessman will he recognise wind power as a job engine, including for those left behind and who voted for him? "The first thing we know is that we don't know," said John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Trump's energy priority is boosting fossil-fuel production and coal jobs. That does not change wind's outlook much in the shorter-term, given its competitive price and the fact that natural gas prices are so low that a lot of shale gas is already being left in the ground.

Obama's CPP was on hold anyway, because of legal opposition. If implemented, it would start to take effect in about 2023. BNEF, which assumed the CPP would not boost wind installation, has not changed its US wind forecast post-election.

In contrast, Make Consulting had expected the CPP to proceed but now foresees US wind demand being slashed by about 50% in 2020-2030, or by 35GW. And that is assuming that a new president, taking office in 2021, does not reinstate it.

Trade and tariffs

Trump's trade rather than energy policies could have a bigger impact on wind. He has called for tariffs as high as 45% on imported goods from China, from where millions of dollars of wind components are already imported yearly. That scale is impossible politically, given likely resistance from Congress, and China would retaliate.

"A unilateral tariff of up to 15% on all imported goods can be introduced for 150 days without the support of Congress," said Make's Dan Shreve.

"Trump may opt to take this approach simply as a warning shot, making good on campaign promises without causing irreparable harm to the economy."

A renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would not affect the wind sector much, say analysts. Few parts are made in Mexico or Canada.

Trump has talked of a tax credit for infrastructure, which could include wind-oriented transmission lines, some of which are planned for Republican-dominated areas.

The Ross-Navarro infrastructure proposal, a pre-election document from Trump's senior economic policy advisers, proposes a tax credit equal to 82% of the equity required for an infrastructure project, said Shreve.

Trump's pushing of energy infrastructure may, however, end up only benefiting fossil fuels, such as stalled oil or gas pipelines.

Ultimately, we do not know how much of Trump's actions will match his campaign rhetoric. But as one analyst, requesting anonymity, said of the outlook: "Clean energy is in better shape than climate science."

INDUSTRY REACTIONS

"An unstoppable shift to a cleaner energy economy is under way, and the fundamentals of wind energy in America are strong"  Tom Kiernan, chief executive, American Wind Energy Association

"The danger would be the scrapping of the (Paris) agreement given the level of global emissions represented by the United States, and the domino effect it may have on other leading emitters such as China" Dan Shreve, partner, Make Consulting

"Millions of Americans voted for a coal-loving climate-denier willing to condemn people around the globe to poverty, famine and death from climate change" Benjamin Schreiber, climate and energy director, Friends of the Earth

"Wind is a bipartisan issue. Trump has bigger fish to fry than to quicken the PTC phase-out. There's a good chance Trump will see wind has a business edge. It's astounding how fast prices have come down" Bruce Hamilton, director, Navigant Research

"Trump will have to come to terms with the strong international consensus on climate action; and he will need to pick and choose the areas where he confronts international partners, which may give him pause in seeking to damage the Paris Agreement" Martin Nesbit, head of environment and climate governance, Institute for European Environmental Policy

US WIND POWER FACTS & FIGURES 

(Source: AWEA)

77GW Installed capacity
50,000 Approximate number of operating utility-scale turbines
40 Number of states with operating utility-scale wind farms
90,000 Number of wind power-related jobs in the US
500 Approximate number of wind-related manufacturing facilities
$128 billion Investment in new wind projects over past ten years


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