Trump’s puzzling clean energy stance

Great deal-maker seems content on sidelines

Celebrate or despise his politics, it is hard not to acknowledge the brilliance of President Trump as a competitive opportunist.  His business and political success is a long history of seizing opportunities by understanding what the public is hungry for, whether it is a realty show in the boardroom, get-rich-quick educational formats, or a return to nationalism.  He has been expert at navigating regulatory and legal landscapes to out-compete his competitors.  He is dogged and creative and plays to win.  As he reiterated in his speech to Congress last week, he has framed much of his domestic economic vision around the fear of losing to China and Mexico and the opportunity to bring manufacturing back to the United States.

It is a puzzle then, that, faced with one of the largest economic opportunities in a generation, President Trump is content to sit on the sidelines and let other countries seize the clean energy future.  Regardless of where US climate policy heads in the next four years, it is clear that the global revolution in clean energy technology is irreversible.  Global markets for efficient light bulbs, appliances, batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles are huge and growing. R&D efforts all over the world are trying to find the next new products that will light our homes, transport us, and cook our food without emitting carbon.

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If the US cedes this space, those products will be stamped “Hecho en Mexico” or “中国制造” (China) – the very nations Trump has identified as our chief trade competition – or   “Lavet i Danmark”, “Hergestellt in Deutschland” (Germany), or “भारत में बनी” (India).  During no other technological and economic transformation have American policymakers inhibited the United States from seizing opportunities to compete. Agricultural machinery, fossil fuel production, automobiles, aviation and space, life sciences – in all of these revolutions, US technology, education, business, and government policy drove innovation and opened markets.  The result was the United States winning, big league.

Other leaders have shown that, despite deep ideological tension, economic opportunities can be too large to leave on the table. When he was governor of Texas, Rick Perry had no equal as an oil-and-gas proponent, and he was a climate change denier, yet he supported markets and infrastructure that allowed wind a more level playing field.  He was governor during some of the fastest growth in wind power in the nation.

Thanks to a wealth of researchers and entrepreneurs, start-ups, and Fortune 500 companies that smell opportunity, the United States is strongly positioned with some of the most advanced technology, manufacturing processes, and marketing tools.  With rapid growth in the last 10 years, the US has more than 2.5 million clean energy jobs, and more each day, across all skill levels, from plumbers to chemists to engineers to installers to architects to electricians.

But the global market is extremely competitive. China has 3 million workers in the sector and is producing some of the lowest-cost solar arrays. German companies are laying claim to much of the wind turbine manufacturing business. Up-and-coming India is launching numerous start- ups in the electric vehicle and advanced battery space.  Clean energy companies in these and other countries will grow and prosper, as they should. But the United States cannot afford to hesitate a moment; we must redouble our efforts in this field or risk losing the existing momentum toward more jobs and economic growth. This is the kind of competitive environment that, by all accounts, should stir Trump’s blood.

Meet the Author

David W Cash

Dean, McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston
David W. Cash is the dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.

  • NortheasternEE

    Government has no business in picking winners and losers in technological innovation. I recall that supersonic aviation was to be the future of transcontinental travel. The European governments invested heavily in the development of the Concord airliner. The US government was right to take a pass and saved a lot of taxpayers’ money.

    For the same reason state and federal governments should stop wasting money on wind and solar support. In 2008 the Green Communities Act embarked on an experiment carving out 20% of our electrical energy supply for renewable energy by 2020. Here we are in 2017 with no chance of getting to 10% by 2020. Coal and nuclear plants have been forced out of business to be replaced by natural gas. Rates are climbing higher and higher and ISO-NE is warning that grid instability will give us more power failures.

    By any measure the experiment to a clean energy future is a failure. But, what do we hear from Beacon Hill? Not a single legislator is asking for a reconsideration and a reexamination of the failed policy. Instead, we hear legislators proposing legislation to go to 100% renewable. In the absence of grid scale energy storage, which is unavailable and hugely expensive, the New England grid cannot handle more than 10% from wind and solar before power failures begin to increase. The 100% mandate for Massachusetts will not avoid carbon. All that can be expected is that Massachusetts ratepayers will pay the extra cost of renewables for all New England.

    Ratepayers are already being asked to fund the construction of unnecessary natural gas pipelines to Pennsylvania and high tension lines to Canada. Now this proposal for 100% renewable will have us paying for all the renewable energy the grid can squeeze from wind and solar in the region.

    The lesson from the Green Communities Act experiment is that wind and solar have failed, Wind turbines in or neighborhoods are making people sick, they kill too may birds and bats, and they are destroying mountains. We need legislators to step up and oppose this mad rush to an impossible dream.