Industry fears for long-term health

UNITED STATES: Donald Trump's surprise win in the presidential election should have little immediate impact on the country's wind energy market, say industry leaders and market analysts.

US wind industry concerned over longer-term ramifications of Trump's win (pic: Michael Vadon)

But his vow to roll back the Obama administration's climate change efforts raises questions about the long-term market drivers for the sector.

The industry’s growth in recent years has been propelled by plummeting costs, aggressive state climate and energy policies, and the $0.023/kWh production tax credit (PTC).

"I don’t think any of those three things are likely to change as a result of Trump's win," says Richard Glick, general counsel for the Democrats on the Senate energy committee.

With the PTC not scheduled to phase out before the end of 2019, the sector is "looking at three or four years of solid growth baked-in already," notes Greg Whetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).

In fact, Trump’s win and the long-term uncertainty it creates could prompt an even more substantial surge in turbine orders as developers look to capitalise on the PTC before it disappears, says Make Consulting’s Dan Shreve.

There is a potential roadblock, however. Trump and the Republicans, who retain control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, have made rewriting the US tax code a priority. This could end in a decision to eliminate the PTC to help pay for big cuts to corporate tax rates.

Glick flags it as something the industry "needs to keep an eye on" as the debate progresses, but most observers doubt there will be much appetite for axing tax credits that are on their way to expiry anyway. The PTC, adds Whetstone, enjoys strong bipartisan support.

"A measure like that would clearly run afoul of several Republican senators and make it pretty tough," he says.

It could also raise the ire of the voters who put Trump in office. Although the president-elect has made no secret of the fact that he is no fan of renewables and is a longstanding opponent of wind energy, US states with some of the highest installed capacities and most wind manufacturing jobs played a key role in his victory.

A Pew Research Center poll, released a week before the election, found that 77% of Trump supporters want to see more wind farms in the US. And, as the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) points out, more than 80% of all US wind farms are in Republican-held congressional districts.

"We envision that the Republican leadership in Congress and the White House will want to keep our industry growing," AWEA said in statement.

The biggest concern for the wind sector in a Trump presidency, experts agree, is the long-term health of the wind market. The sector was looking to climate action to drive demand for emissions-free electricity once the tax credits expire at the end of the decade. 

But Trump, who describes man-made climate change as a hoax, wants to pull the US out of the global climate agreement reached last year in Paris, casting doubt on the future of the deal just days after it officially came into force.

He also says he will pull the plug on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which mandates a 32% reduction in power plant emissions by 2030.

Post-2020 concerns

"The real question now is what happens once we get past 2020," says Whetstone. "Do we have the long-term demand drivers that were associated with the Paris agreement and the Clean Power Plan?"

The answer, observers say, could lie with the states. Nine of which are already actively planning for CPP compliance, buoyed by cost-competitive renewable technologies and growing interest from major companies like Google in locating facilities where they can access clean electricity supply.

Trump’s pledge to "bring back coal" and preserve 30,000 coal mining jobs seems unlikely to reverse the transition under way in the US electricity sector. He could try undo regulations that have adversely affected the coal sector, make it easier for companies to lease new coal sites and offer incentives for technologies such as carbon capture and storage, says Mark Menezes, vice-president of federal relations at Berkshire Hathaway, a leading wind asset owner with a generation portfolio that also includes coal.

 But asked whether he now expects to see new coal plant construction in the US, Menezes supplied a one-word answer: No.