Clean energy may still thrive under Trump

  • A power-generating wind turbine is shown near Caseville, Mich., Sept. 11, 2015. AP FILE PHOTO

  • FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 15, 2016 file photo one of Deepwater Wind's turbines is viewed off Block Island, R.I. The nation's first offshore wind farm has opened off the coast of Rhode Island, ushering in a new era in the U.S. for the industry. Deepwater Wind built five turbines 3 miles off Block Island to power about 17,000 homes, a project costing about 300 million. It announced Monday that the wind farm has begun producing energy for the grid. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

For the Gazette
Published: 1/2/2017 9:37:16 AM

The day after President-elect Donald Trump picked Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, five large white wind turbines went online 13 miles south of the Rhode Island coast.

Deepwater Wind, the first commercial offshore wind project in the United States, will provide power for approximately 17,000 homes, a starting point for what analysts say will be more projects off the Atlantic coastline — despite a pro-fossil-fuel administration in Washington.

Trump campaigned on the promise of resurrecting the struggling coal mines of West Virginia and touted oil exploration on federal lands. He also called wind power a “dangerous experiment.”

But energy experts say those positions are unlikely to affect the growth of wind power.

“States and corporations will be forging ahead in clean energy despite what happens under the Trump administration,” said Clint Wilder, a senior editor at Clean Edge, an expert research and advisory firm in the clean tech industry. “They’ve set their goals and targets. Politics don’t really matter.”

Wilder points to two major developments over the last decade that have accelerated wind power development.

First, states and corporations are choosing to buy their power directly from energy developers, bypassing traditional utilities that are more affected by Washington-driven policies.

Google’s recent announcement that all its power will come from renewable energy by 2017 is one example. Google says it is already the world’s largest corporate buyer of wind and solar energy.

Second is the long-term nature of power purchase agreements, which run for 15 to 20 years — a timespan that carries more weight in the marketplace than the four to eight years of a presidency.

“Barack Obama didn’t kill off the coal industry, the marketplace did that,” Wilder said. “Coal is as dirty as you can get. It’s not just carbon, there’s all kinds of nasty stuff that comes out when you burn it, so therefore coal plants are very expensive to install with the cleaning aspect.

“And nobody wants a coal plant in their backyard,” he added. “So that’s what really happened to the coal industry.”

The Obama administration has been pushing renewable energy forward. The National Offshore Wind Strategy, announced in September as part of the administration’s Climate Action Plan, envisions offshore wind farms on nearly every U.S. coastline, providing enough power for 23 million homes.

Obama also supported the Clean Energy Act of 1992, which gives tax credits to providers of renewable energy to foster industry growth. His administration extended the current tax credit to 2019.

Trump has not been a strong supporter of wind energy. At an August campaign rally in Pennsylvania, he spoke in support of “clean coal” and against wind energy.

“The wind kills all your birds,” he said at the rally. “All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that.”

Trump also recently lost a protracted legal battle against an offshore wind farm near his golf development in Scotland.

“History will judge those involved unfavorably and the outcome demonstrates the foolish, small-minded and parochial mentality which dominates the current Scottish government’s dangerous experiment with wind energy,” Trump wrote in an email to the Wall Street Journal.

But according to Spencer Hempleman, a hedge fund manager at Ardsley Partners Renewable Energy Fund and an expert in the clean tech market, changes under the Trump administration will likely target environmental regulations rather than renewable energy and its potential to create jobs.

“We (Ardsley Partners) also believe the new administration’s energy policy will not be as draconian for renewable energy as most expect,” Hempleman wrote for the Ardsley monthly update. “While Trump was vociferous around his support for coal on the campaign stump, we think the economics of cheaper natural gas, solar, and wind, as well as utilities’ long-term planning horizons, and state level renewable energy goals will thwart the return of ‘king coal’.”

The momentum for wind power is only growing.

U.S. Energy Department reported that wind energy production grew by 12 percent in 2015; more wind projects were built than any other energy production source. By the end of the year, nearly 6 percent of the country’s power was created by wind.

These wind projects also create jobs, something that is likely to soften the Trump administration’s attitude to the energy sector. A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that offshore wind energy has great potential, particularly for job creation.

“... this research found that an offshore wind industry in the United States has the potential to support thousands of jobs due to robust workforce requirements,” the report concluded.

Meaghan Wims, a spokeswoman for Deepwater Wind, said the project’s five turbines have created some 300 jobs for local workers.

Clean tech expert Wilder said offshore wind projects create jobs both during the manufacture and construction phases, but it’s their maintenance that creates long-term, high-paying jobs for skilled workers. These jobs include software programming and work at the control centers that operate the turbines.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for these types of jobs in 2015 was $51,000, even without a college degree, and the number of jobs available is expected to increase by 108 percent in the next 10 years. By comparison, the Department of Labor expects jobs in the coal industry to increase by 6 to 12 percent in the same time period.

Yet there are some who question whether America’s first offshore wind farm has lived up to the claims of job creation.

Christopher Helman, a senior editor at Forbes magazine, wrote earlier this year that Deepwater Wind may have created jobs, but not for American workers.

“Sure, a few dozen laborers from Rhode Island’s unions are working to install the turbines and cables, but manufacturing the pieces is an international effort,” he wrote. “The towers are coming from Spain. The 240-foot-long blades from Denmark. The nacelles, which hold the gears and engines, from France. The cable from South Korea.”

Wilder disagrees. Though some of the parts come from foreign manufacturers, he said, companies often set up U.S. plants closer to project sites. And, he said, a majority of the construction and maintenance for offshore wind projects needs to be done on site.

“So as far as ‘making America great again’ and employing people here at home, wind power and clean energy is a very positive thing. They (the Trump administration) want to push fossil fuels, but in terms of jobs it doesn’t have to be an either or,” Wilder said.

On the whole, Wilder and Hempleman are optimistic for the future of offshore wind energy under the Trump administration.

“Those of us in the clean energy industry have been saying for years that clean energy should not be a partisan issue,” Wilder said. “Clean energy benefits the environment absolutely, but it also benefits the economy for both wealth creation, and job creation.”

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