The Trump threat on energy

Fears of shift toward fossil fuels are real

WHILE DONALD TRUMP’S VICTORY has sent many shock waves, perhaps there’s none more immediate than those now coursing through New England’s progressive energy policy. That policy has led the nation in energy efficiency, renewables, and innovation, all with the intent of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to stave off climate change.

The broad threats of a Trump energy and environmental policy are enormous. Inaction on the 2015 Paris Accords will serve as another sign of our country’s diminished commitment to global agreements that in the long run strengthen our own security. Abandonment of the current President’s Clean Power Plan, whatever its flaws, will take away a state’s flexibility to enact a combination of measures to clean up its environment.

The fears are real: Trump’s national appointments at the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could shift resources and make regulatory decisions that favor fossil fuels over investments in technologies that will enhance the energy transition and job creation in clean investment. We have learned that the magnitude of clean energy investment requires support at the federal level, a gap that the private sector alone cannot fill.

For over a generation, New England and Massachusetts have taken a leadership role in electricity deregulation, with the recognition that energy efficiency is our “first fuel,” with the development of green communities, and with the direct linkage of energy to environment. At the end of the energy pipeline, we have recognized the advantages of regional energy cooperation and developed a set of energy governance policies to assure reliability. Under a Trump presidency, we can expect threats to our regional “energy values” and will need to persevere–but in a way, that enables our region to grow.

New England has a strong set of energy values although we’ve struggled of late with exactly how to implement them amid conflicts among stakeholders. Our region, along with Canada’s eastern premiers, since 2001, has sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and our states have established aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets. Our disagreements have been around how quickly and how best to achieve these reductions, not whether climate change is a hoax.

The disagreements and conflicts get the most attention. We have valued competition in electricity markets as the best way to reduce prices although our market rules are complex and not transparent. We determined that increasing our use of natural gas was a means to reduce our dependence upon foreign oil and to reduce power plant emissions, and then decried our increased gas reliance and now object to pipelines. We supported renewable energy and then made both the siting of land-based wind and Cape Wind nonstarters. We celebrate the closing of our nuclear plants and then wonder how to lower emissions targets.  We support power from Canada and wind from Northern Maine although we decry the building of transmission lines that bring remote energy to consumers.

In the age of Trump, New England needs to resolve its energy problems in a way that comports with our values as well as promotes economic growth and fairness. We have a strong set of regional energy institutions that provide forums for stakeholders to enact market rules and ensure reliability. But within these institutions, stakeholders are dealing both with complex problems, such as assuring reliability when renewable resources are not available, valuing the capacity from various types of generation, and finding the capital for long-term investment in financial markets seeking faster paybacks.

Another complicating factor is the need to control costs, the need for energy infrastructure upgrades and improvements, and the existential threat of climate change itself. Unfortunately, our energy stakeholders have often operated more out of self-interest, whether on a financial or state level, than  focusing on the regional greater good.

In New England we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

All the states in the region must find an equitable way to distribute energy costs and to site energy resources and clean energy transmission. Our energy markets, built on the foundation of competition, must truly result in lower costs for consumers, rather than preserving the interests of one stakeholder over another. True to our values we need to ensure that our environmental goals are met at the same time as we preserve reliability. One takeaway from Trump’s victory is that costs and jobs do matter, so that natural gas, based on strict fracking rules and leak-proof infrastructure, should be part of a short-term solution.

Meet the Author

New England has an opportunity to continue to lead as a beacon of progressive energy policy in an age of Trump. But we cannot be mired in dogma and self-interest. Our strength is in our regional energy policy, the innovation from our universities and our investors, and strong environmental values. Our stake is in the future, mobilizing our capacity to solve complex energy and policy issues in a way that grows our region and reduces the threats from climate change.

Barbara Kates-Garnick is a professor of practice at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She formerly worked as a Department of Public Utilities commissioner under Gov. William Weld and undersecretary of energy under Gov. Deval Patrick.