After losing a two-year long battle to prevent a wind farm from being constructed within the view shed of one of his golf courses in Scotland, Donald Trump decided that the smug wind industry would get payback when he ran for President.
Trump has extended that vengeance to the solar industry, and really all forms of energy that don’t generally fill the air and water with copious amounts of pollution. In his hastily put together book for his Presidential Campaign, “Crippled America”, released last November, Trump actually wrote this:
There has been a big push to develop alternative forms of energy–so-called green energy–from renewable sources. That’s a big mistake. To begin with, the whole push for renewable energy is being driven by the wrong motivation, the mistaken belief that global climate change is being caused by carbon emissions. If you don’t buy that–and I don’t–then what we have is really just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.
Before we write off Trump’s comments as yet more buffoonery, we have to determine if they have any validity. Does renewable energy increase energy prices? Is producing cleaner forms of electricity inherently more expensive than sticking with fossil fuels?
So, let’s consider states which have added the most renewable energy over the past few years with those that haven’t based on U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) data. I compared 10 states that have invested heavily in renewable energy with 10 states that have invested very little to see if there’s much of a difference. These states are located in all regions of the country, and rely on different primary fuels, be it coal, natural gas, or nuclear power, in order to have a fair comparison. I took the average power price from 2010 through the first half of 2016 and compared it with the average power price over the past 18 months.
It turns out that the 10 states that have invested heavily in renewable energy have all at least doubled the percentage of power they got from renewable energy during that time.
These states include California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico in the West. California has seen a boom in solar, while Colorado and New Mexico have seen a boom in solar and wind. Nevada has had a boom in solar and geothermal. Iowa, Kansas, and North Dakota in the Midwest have added substantial capacity from wind energy, as have Oklahoma and Texas in the southern Great Plains. Texas is now adding significant amounts of solar energy to its power grid. Then there is Vermont, which after closing its leaking nuclear plant in 2014, now generates virtually all of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, including hydroelectricity, biomass, solar, and wind. The rest of its power is imported from Canada or other neighboring states.
Now let’s look at the ten states that have done little, if anything, to add renewable energy to their generation portfolios, aside from importing wind power from neighboring states. These states include Ohio and Wisconsin, whose Republican governors (John Kasich and Scott Walker) both incorrectly believed (i.e. were told by the Koch Brothers) that renewable energy would increase power prices. In response, these states created policies hostile to renewable energy development. Then there is Pennsylvania, which has had the largest natural gas boom in history, meaning it has more fossil fuel than it could ever need within its own borders, nearly all of it extracted since 2010. The other nine states are Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wyoming. Virginia is starting to add solar projects, but hadn’t added much through the first half of 2016. I left out Alabama, which also did nothing, because I already had three of its neighbors; and Alabama had a higher increase in average price than those other three. So leaving it out helps out Donald Trump’s case in this calculation.
What did I find?
Well, indeed, states that doubled their renewable energy have seen higher average prices over the past 18 months than over the past six years. Prices in those states in the past 18 months are 2.1% higher than the average from 2010 through the first half of 2016.
But states that sat on their hands, and decided that renewable energy was too expensive, have actually seen prices 3% higher over the past 18 months than the average from 2010 through the first half of 2016. So by not doing anything to invest in renewable energy, these states have actually seen a larger increase in prices than states that kowtowed to “tree-hugging hippies.”
What’s even more striking about this is that renewable energy prices have been plummeting, which means that newer clean power projects have lower-priced contracts than the ones completed a while ago. Maybe that’s why, across the country, electric utilities and energy-hungry companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon have been investing heavily in renewable energy. Costs have come down sharply – with no end in sight – and smart companies want to benefit from the savings.
Massachusetts, a northern state with relatively lower amounts of sunshine than in the desert Southwest, has had over $2 billion of solar energy built over the past three years, and continues to add capacity. North Carolina has had $3 billion worth of solar energy built during that time, with another $1 billion under construction. The first utility-scale, onshore wind farm in that state is currently under construction, despite not as windy as the Great Plains, because it is cost effective, and because the contract provides a long-term hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi all have $100 million+ solar farms under construction. And no, it’s not because any of these “red” states have any interest in making “tree huggers” happy.
The fact is that the levelized cost of renewable energy over the life of a twenty-year contract is low enough to incentivize utilities and businesses everywhere to lock in low prices. Clinging to the promise of coal and natural gas as cheap, reliable sources of energy is a big lie. In fact, costs generally tend to go up over time for fossil-fuel-fired power plants. And cleaning up dirty coal is a super-expensive pipe dream. Mississippi, for instance, has been trying to build a “clean coal” plant for several years, and it’s now $4 billion over budget and two years late.
Of course, Donald Trump or other conservatives may argue that it is regulations that are causing fossil fuel prices to go up. But that leaves out any assumption that pollution has a cost. And that’s just not true. Besides fossil fuels accelerating climate change, which Donald Trump disavows, pollution is a problem that impacts everyone, causing adverse health and economic impacts. Would Donald Trump have been happier if a smoke-belching coal-fired power plant had been built next to his golf course in Scotland? I don’t think so.
Again, though, the killer argument for clean energy is that the costs of technologies like wind and solar – and note that these are technologies, not fuels – continue to go down, just like other technologies tend to do as they scale up. Thus, investing in renewable energy projects today is a way to ensure low energy prices for years to come. It’s relying on fossil fuels that is the big gamble, because fossil fuel prices are volatile – and that’s not even counting their impacts on the environment, human health, etc. An added bonus is that renewable energy is “made in the USA,” as the sun and wind don’t have to be imported, reducing our trade deficit.
States that don’t have great solar or wind resources are now importing renewable energy from projects in neighboring states. In many cases, utilities have found that importing renewable energy is less expensive than importing fossil fuels to burn in their power plants. But even where fossil fuels are abundant, like in Pennsylvania, costs for those power plants are going up. Pennsylvania had the largest natural gas boom in history and still has tremendous amounts of coal. Yet that state’s average power prices went up by more than Vermont; a state that went from being a net exporter of electricity to becoming the state which imports the largest percentage of its electricity.
This data is more evidence that renewable energy doesn’t increase costs for consumers. To the contrary, NOT investing in renewable increases costs; even in states that produce vast amounts of fossil fuels, like Pennsylvania and Wyoming, and even in states that don’t have great solar or wind resources.
I’ve also heard the argument that nuclear power should receive more investment. As a cleaner source of energy, nuclear power plants produce few lifecycle carbon emissions. The problem is that nuclear power plants are failing to compete with cheap natural gas and low-cost renewable energy. The nuclear power industry once deemed electricity “too cheap to meter,” but today is demanding enormous taxpayer subsidies to stay in operation.
At the end of the day, Donald Trump didn’t make his claim about renewable energy because he believed that was the case based on evidence. He didn’t have any evidence. He just says stuff — in speeches, on Twitter, and, in this case, in a book sold to the American people without any fact checking whatsoever.
But if you believe things based on your own myopic ignorance, how can you lead the largest economy on earth?
Perhaps pushing dirty coal, fracked natural gas and “drill baby drill” are just (expensive) ways to make Fox News viewers — people who probably think Hummers are cool — feel good about themselves? Other than that, it makes little if any sense, particularly given polling that indicates the vast majority of Americans want more solar and wind power.