Gregory Pitner had done all the research, crunched all the numbers. The nanoelectronics researcher from San Jose, California, knew that he wanted solar panels installed on his home. The only question was timing: Should he do it now? Or perhaps in a few months, when it was warmer? Maybe if he waited, the price would go down. Maybe he’d get a better quote.
Then President Donald Trump announced his decision to impose tariffs on solar panels imported from China. Pitner and his wife knew, from reading media reports, that the price of panels could soon rise. “It was a forcing function for us to make a decision,” he said. “We knew that if we had waited longer, we would have been impacted, and we were not sure how it would have affected us.” Pitner also knew that a huge financial incentive for installing solar panels was on the verge of expiring: the Investment Tax Credit, which covers 30 percent of the installation cost.
Today, 17 panels sit on Pitner’s roof, soaking up sunlight that charges his electric car and helps power his family’s home. “Trump’s tariff helped us make our decision, and move quickly,” he said, as did uncertainty over whether Congress would renew the tax credit. But his decision mostly had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with saving money. “This was a financial investment for me,” he said. He’s calculated that the energy his $16,000 system produces should pay for the system’s installation within five years.
Environmental advocates and journalists (me included) have a habit of describing Trump’s presidency as a major blow to renewable energy. But the reality is far more complicated. Yes, the Trump administration has adopted an aggressively pro–fossil fuel agenda and has pushed policies that are undoubtedly harmful to renewable energy. But that doesn’t mean he’s destroying the industry altogether, nor that he has the ability to do so. From solar to wind to geothermal energy, the renewables industry is withstanding Trump—and in some cases, it’s doing better than ever.
Pavel Molchanov, an energy market analyst at the financial firm Raymond James, is adamant that Trump isn’t killing renewables. “There is no effort by the Trump administration to wipe out renewable energy,” he said. “That’s not the effort, that’s not on the agenda.” He sees Trump as pro-fossil fuels, and anti-government spending—but not necessarily anti-renewable. “There are differences in emphasis between, for example, what we saw during eight years of Obama, and what we are seeing today,” he said. “But those are questions of degree, they’re not issues of life and death.”
The Trump administration has pushed policies that would worry any renewable energy advocate. His proposed 2019 budget includes a 72 percent cut to the Energy Department’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, most of which focus on research to make solar and wind cheaper. The budget would also “ax research in fuel efficient vehicles by 82 percent, bioenergy technologies by 82 percent, advanced manufacturing by 75 percent and solar energy technology by 78 percent,” according to The Washington Post.
But as a budget expert would tell you, these proposals are most likely dead-on-arrival. Congress, which controls the budget, typically ignores a president’s recommendations—even more so in an election year. And even if Trump’s budget were adopted, Molchanov isn’t convinced the impact would be even close to apocalyptic. “The DOE gives some grants to universities and companies to do research and development, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not what’s driving wind and solar adoption,” he said. “Right now, big projects are funded and supported through tax credits, which have not changed.”
Media outlets, The New Republic included, also raised alarm over the Trump administration’s decision to impose a 30 percent tax on solar equipment imported from China, which would likely make the product more expensive for Americans. But as Pitner told me, panels don’t constitute the entire cost of going solar. He calculated that his $16,000 system would have cost only $1,800 more if the entire tax were transferred to the consumer. Greentech Media, a media company and market research firm, predicts solar will continue to grow despite these tariffs. Even Al Gore has said the decision was “not an utter catastrophe.”
What, then, about recent job losses? A study from the National Solar Foundation released last week found that, in 2017, the industry lost nearly 10,000 jobs—the first time the industry has seen job loss, not growth, since the group began its yearly report in 2010. Most headlines focused on this negative statistic, and Newsweek even blamed the job losses directly on Trump.
But Ed Gilliland, NSF’s senior director, told me the cause of the job losses in 2017 predated Trump. Large utility companies were scared that Congress would allow the solar investment tax credit to expire at the end of 2016, so they hurried to take advantage of it, launching new projects that resulted in an unprecedented increase in solar jobs that year. Congress eventually did renew the tax credit, which leveled out the number of projects and meant less jobs for solar installers in 2017. But the industry’s workforce is growing overall, increasing by 168 percent from 2010 to 2017. “We’ve still got 20,000 more jobs in 2017 than 2015, and we still have more capacity being installed now than in 2015,” Gilliland said. “Over the long term, we’ve had a really positive growth in solar.”
Moreover, solar jobs in 29 states increased last year. Most of 2017’s job losses occurred in California, the result of a confluence of factors. “The national policies are important, the trade case is important, the tax bill will have some impact, but the biggest impacts are really at the state policy level,” Gilliland said. Molchanov agreed that state policies hold far more power over the fate of solar, as well as other energy technologies. “When it comes to energy policy, just generally, Washington has limited influence and very limited power,” Molchanov said. “It can influence its growth in a relatively small way, but the broader economic trends are far larger than any politician, and that’s true the world over.”
Any argument that Trump poses an existential threat to the renewable energy industry makes the false assumption that Trump holds the power to fundamentally change markets. The latest global economic trends show that all forms of renewable energy—solar, hydropower, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and so on—will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. Wind energy in particular has been shown to be one of the cheapest sources of electricity in America, and is expected to eventually come in at half the price of natural gas. Even in 2017, a year of uncertainty, renewable energy made up 18 percent of the overall energy mix in America—the largest percentage ever. These trends largely transcend politics.
Policy actions do have some impact—and not all of them have been detrimental to renewable energy. As Greentech Media pointed out, the two-year budget deal signed into law this month “includes credits for fuel cells, energy efficiency, microturbines, combined heat and power, carbon capture, and nuclear power. The latter would extend nuclear benefits past 2020, allowing the country’s last large-scale nuclear project under construction, an expansion at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia, to benefit.” The Trump administration is also reportedly brainstorming ideas to help the boost U.S. geothermal industry, which creates power from heat energy stored deep underground. And for all of his railing against wind turbines, Trump hasn’t acted on his hatred of them.
Things could certainly be better for the renewable energy industry. One of the biggest problems with renewable energy, for instance, is energy storage. We have advanced technology to generate clean electricity while the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, but inadequate technology to store it for use while the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. Such storage is essential if society is ever going to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, and developing that technology requires research—the same kind which Trump consistently threatens to defund.
Imagine how well solar, wind, and battery technology would fare if Trump had the same enthusiasm for promoting it as he does for promoting coal and oil and gas. Instead of repealing environmental regulations for the benefit of fossil fuel industries, he could be strengthening them for the benefit of clean ones. Instead of opening up offshore waters to oil and gas development, he could be incentivizing offshore wind development. If Trump were a renewable-friendly president, he could propose a federal version of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, a policy implemented in 29 states, which require utilities to produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables.
Trump will never be that president. But he doesn’t have the power to completely undo the progress that has already been made. Forces greater than him are steering America toward a cleaner economy.