It has been a busy nine days since reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, in a shocking result that showed the inadequacy and ignorance of polls and pundits.
And with rumors flying, at this time it is important to distinguish between what we do know and what we do not know.
What we do know: Koch Brothers lobbyist Mike McKenna has been appointed to handle the transition at the Energy Department (DOE), and professional climate denier Myron Ebell has been appointed to handle the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In reality, that’s about it. There are rumors that McKenna will be removed in Vice President Mike Pence’s proposed purge of lobbyists, but last we heard he was still prowling the halls of DOE. And despite rampant speculation, we don’t know who the final picks will be for Trump’s cabinet will be. We also don’t know if a Trump Administration and Republicans in both houses of Congress will renege on their earlier deal and abolish the 30% solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC).
In my interview last week with national solar trade group SEIA, Christopher Mansour told me he thinks this is unlikely. But before you get too comfortable, remember that SEIA’s primary purpose is to lobby elected officials from both parties at the federal level, and their communications reflects this.
I recall six years ago when I interviewed an executive of SEIA, around the time of the 2010 congressional elections. This individual told me that solar was beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike, and that SEIA has “friends on both sides of the aisle” (a phrase Mansour repeated).
This was shortly before Congressional Republicans began their witch hunt regarding the failure of Solyndra, during which they duped a sensationalistic and utterly unprofessional press into maligning the entire DOE Loan Guarantee Program. If any of these journalists had done their homework they would have known that 87% of loans by value went to power generation projects, not start-ups like Solyndra, and that the program was a financial success and the best thing that ever happened to the U.S. solar industry.
So while I am sure that SEIA has friends “on both sides of the aisle”, I am in no way reassured that SEIA’s communication with a handful of Republicans will prevent another wholesale attack on renewable energy.
Oh, and Trump’s appointees will probably destroy the SunShot and any help that renewable energy gets at DOE. This may also be considered speculation, but the insiders we are in touch with are deeply concerned.
You can kiss the Clean Power Plan goodbye as well. However, as we have reported earlier, the Clean Power Plan is not actually terribly important for the solar industry, given how far away the first compliance period is and just how much can change between now and then.
But to return to my earlier comments, other than the potential changes at DOE and EPA we don’t know if attacking renewable energy will be a priority for the Trump Administration or the Republican House and Senate, given that they have other, more immediate plans like dismantling Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security and other programs. It is probably not even in the top dozen list of things Trump and the Republicans want to destroy.
There is also the considerable disarray of the Trump Administration to consider. Any attacks that do come may take time due to sheer disorganization.
But none of this is what gives me hope and confidence. With each year the ITC becomes less critical, and I have been saying for years that state-level policy is more critical for renewable energy deployment than federal policy. State-level renewable portfolio standards have been the biggest drivers of utility-scale wind and solar, and state-level net metering arrangements are the foundational policies for distributed solar markets.
More recently, PURPA is emerging as a big driver for utility-scale solar, especially in North Carolina, Utah and other states that weren’t even on the map a few years ago. I’m not sure PURPA is even on the radar of the Republican Party, and PURPA implementation happens at the state, not the federal level.
There is also the consideration that more and more Republicans are warming up to and even becoming advocates for solar, at first in Arizona and Georgia and now in an increasing number of other states. Republicans may not like federal programs, but they do like wind and solar when they are successful industries and sources of cheap power in their states.
To further underscore this point, Texas grid operator ERCOT is expecting the state to deploy 13 GW of solar by 2030, without any state-level incentives. ERCOT’s prediction for solar if Clean Power Plan and other environmental rules are implemented? 14 GW.
We do not know what will happen in this new administration. But we need to understand what the real drivers of solar markets are, and should not borrow trouble.