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The future of solar power in Donald Trump’s America

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 11/22/2016 in
Updated 11/22/2016

Ladies and gentlemen, the President-Elect of the United States of America.

November 22nd, 2016

Well, it happened. The President-Elect of the United States is a man who as recently as May said solar has “a 30-year payback,” and is, “very, very expensive,” despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. That’s got some solar advocates—us included—a little worried about what the future might hold. After all, without a robust national solar marketplace, we’d be out of work.

So what might happen? Will the Trump administration get rid of all federal subsidies for solar power? Will we have to rename the site CoalPowerRocks.com and write blogs like “10 beautiful steam-powered home generators that will almost make you forget the black lung epidemic?

Probably not, but if they do, you better start the process of getting solar panels for your house now.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’re going to be magnanimous and leave out the ponderous “Darkest Timeline” stuff. Here’s what we think is going to go down in the next 4 years:

In Donald Trump’s Own Words

The Donald has a short but colorful history of Twitter comments mentioning President Obama’s “solar cronyism,” and the aforementioned statements about solar’s 30-year payback, but those words aren’t anything we could call substantial policy direction.

It’s important to note that when he made that incorrect statement about solar payback, he was speaking about his future energy policies. His full comments were:

We’re going to open it up. We’re going to be energy independent. We’re going to have all sorts of energy. We’re going to have everything you can think of, including solar. And I know a lot about solar. The problem with solar: It’s very expensive. When you have a 30-year payback, that’s not exactly the greatest thing in the world. But I know a lot about solar. I have gone solar on occasion, but it’s a very, very expensive thing.

So it seems he’s not opposed to using solar power when it suits his needs, probably on the advice of his business partners and employees. Which is why we’re hopeful that once he’s in the White House (part-time) he’ll be open to considering the fact that solar power is now the leading source of new electricity generation in this country, and maybe it’s not just because of cronyism, but because of economics.

Still, considering the early signs from Trump’s transition to power, the outlook isn’t all that rosy.

Why we’re worried

How the whole solar industry looked watching election results.

There’s been a good deal of worried speculation from people in the renewable energy and clean technology industries about how Donald Trump will govern, and whether we’ll even have much of a renewable energy and clean technology industry under a Trump administration. And there’s been a worrying lack of clarity from Trump’s campaign (now transition team) on their plans.

Back in more innocent times (February), we wrote a blog about the 2016 Presidential candidates’ positions on solar power. We didn’t have a lot to report about Trump in that article, because his website contained no mention of climate change or clean energy policy. And even though his internet presence has switched to a Presidential transition website, we still don’t have a lot of info.

That website’s “Energy Independence” page includes no specific mention of wind and solar power, only a vague statement that the Trump administration’s “energy policies will make full use of our domestic energy sources, including traditional and renewable energy sources.”

The Energy Policy statement goes on to promise that Trump will “scrap the $5 trillion dollar Obama-Clinton Climate Action Plan and the Clean Power Plan,” which it says would not have “any measurable effect on Earth’s climate.” Those policies would have led to substantial investment in renewable technologies to fight the future effects of climate change. But in Donald’s own words, he doesn’t seem too concerned about that issue:

And then just today, in a meeting with the press he said “I think there is some connectivity” between humans and climate change. Well!

Then there’s this guy:

Myron Ebell, the self-anointed “global warming expert,” on “very respectable” news network PAJAMASTV.

He’s the climate change-denying leader of the “Cooler Heads Coalition,” he’s the Trump pick to head the transition at the EPA, and he’s a guy who’s said “subsidizing solar panels is a waste of taxpayer money” and also “I would like to have more funding, so that I could combat the nonsense put out by the environmental movement.”

He’s going to have the full funding of the EPA (diminished as it is). With this guy on the beat, we might see the end of the popular federal solar investment tax credits, the end of EPA’s studies of the effects and causes of climate change, and worse.

This is why we’re worried.

Why we’re not worried

After all that doom and gloom, how about a palate cleanser? Okay, how about Tesla replacing an entire island’s diesel-powered generators with solar panels and batteries:

No matter what Myron Ebell thinks of solar subsidies, they’ve helped jumpstart something that was sorely needed: a technological revolution to remake the way the world works. You don’t have to keep feeding the belly of solar panels with some international conglomerate’s fossil fuel product to keep them going.

There’s a better future out there, and the United States needs to be a big part of it. If we’re not, we’re definitely going to be a second-class nation, and that’s our first thing to be hopeful about:

Competition

Donald Trump is nothing if not competitive. He’s also so thin-skinned, he responds to any perceived slight with a barrage of word salad bloviating. We hope that when he occupies the highest office in the land, this tendency can be used for good rather than evil. After all the American election has seen, the renewable energy industry around the world is not stopping.

Imagine the following scenario:

Trump advisor: Mr. President, the Chinese are taunting us in a press release. They’ve installed 35 GW of solar power this year and have eliminated their need for any foreign sources of energy. Their solar panel manufacturers have made deals to be the exclusive suppliers to all other southeast Asian countries.

Trump: Oh, this cannot stand. We’re going to fix this.

(Cut to 2018 State of the Union Address)

Trump: Folks, the Chinese are out there, and they’re beating us. They’re making more things, selling more things. It’s ridiculous. They’re even way ahead of us with the solar. So we’re going to compete. We’re going to have so much solar, really, the best solar, and we’re going to do it cheaper than them, and it’s going to be all over this great, great country. Really excellent stuff. And we’re going to make it all right here. In America.

Congressional Sycophants: (cheering and applauding)

Which brings us to:

Solar jobs and the size of the industry

The solar industry has grown huge over the past 8 years. There are now more people employed in solar than employed in coal mining; over 209,000 at last count. And that isn’t stopping.

If Donald Trump is going to end solar subsidies, he’s going to kill jobs, and that’s not the platform he ran on. We can virtually guarantee that no solar industry workers want to go work in a coal mine, either, so that’s a non-starter.

This industry is now worth billions, especially to the utility companies, who now have 20 GW of new solar under contract to be built. We’re talking a 63% increase in installed solar in this country, in just 1 year. The solar industry is not stopping, and a lot of huge companies have a lot riding on its success.

Check out this chart from the most recent Renewable Energy Data Book (PDF), from the Department of Energy:

We’ve reached solar’s “hockey stick” moment, where the growth from here is almost inexorably exponential. And if the Trump administration tries to stop it, the rest of the world will pass us by. But we don’t think that’s likely to happen on account of…

Public Opinion

People. Love. Renewable. Energy. Especially solar. Recent polls indicate that support for expanding solar power generation is as high as 89% among the general public, more than twice the number than support expanding any fossil fuel source.

And it isn’t just a bunch of Hillary supporters out there. Groups like Conservatives for Energy Freedom are very vocal about their support for solar; especially home solar. And despite the fact that we seem to be fully entrenched in an era of “truthiness,” in attacks on renewable energy and its proponents, we don’t think we’ll be slipping back into the coal era any time soon.

Best case scenario

Donald Trump said and condoned some truly horrible things while running for office, but we’re hopeful he’ll at least attempt to govern from the middle. A tiny bit? Well, anyway, he ran as a populist, who’s out to help the little guys and gals, and whether he’ll be kowtowing to industrialists, bankers, or racists, he’ll still have to answer to the people of this country. All of them.

The best case scenario for solar under Trump would be a populist push for nationwide home energy independence, with tax breaks for going solar still firmly in place, and maybe even expanded or augmented by a specific “Made in America” rule, like we’ve seen in Washington and Minnesota, among other places (hopefully not “Made in Russia”).

We sometimes grumble about the lack of national standards for things like net metering and interconnection, but this is one time we’re actually really glad that our nation is a patchwork quilt of varying rules and regulations about energy policy. The good states for solar aren’t going to change overnight, so people who live in places like Oregon, California, and all of the northeast will still have a good financial outlook with panels on their roofs.

So, what do you think?

Last modified: November 22, 2016

8 thoughts on “The future of solar power in Donald Trump’s America

  1. Avatar for What? Jigga Jigga Slim Shady What? Jigga Jigga Slim Shady says:

    Well, trump just approved the Keystone Extra Large and Dakota Access pipelines today.. More efficient and safe than by truck and rail, but does give the hat off to big oil.

  2. Avatar for Marcelo Pacheco Marcelo Pacheco says:

    Solar is unstoppable. By 2020 pretty much every tropical/equatorial island that ran on diesel will go solar. By 2025 most sub tropical ones will go solar too. That market alone represents tens of GWp worth of solar and will cause rooftop PV to increase top efficiency to 28+% and less efficient panels to drop in cost so much that labor+inverter+battery will be 80% of a total solar system costs, in a decade or two the panels will be absurdly cheap.

  3. Avatar for Brandon Brandon says:

    The climate change debate and solar panels do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Personally, I think man made climate change is a hoax (as do most Americans). Records have only been kept for what 100+ years?? How do we know that we aren’t just part of a bigger natural cycle? Anyways…I have solar panels and I like the fact that electricity is being produced in my backyard and someday I hope to store it and be independent off the grid. (Americans like their independence!) THIS IS HOW SOLAR PANELS SHOULD BE SOLD!! Let’s position them and carve out a spot in the marketplace. Sales will grow if marketed properly and then newer and better technology to follow. Who cares what Trump says. President’s come and go. A solid product can and will stay!

  4. Avatar for Peter Sakari Peter Sakari says:

    We must do everything to ensure that Trump doesn’t kill the industry. Personal energy independence from fossil fuels and utility companies is something worth pushing for.

  5. Avatar for KathyMac KathyMac says:

    It seems to me that Trump, a huge proponent of the free market system, is of the opinion that if solar and wind are economically sound resources, they will survive and prosper in an open market. I live in central Texas, and I know that is true, here. But until batteries (to be used in conjunction with a solar installation) are main stream for residential use and available to everyone at a reasonable price, there must be some other source of generation to supplement wind and solar. (In Texas, it is primarily natural gas.) In order for the solar industry to compete in the open market, they must be able to justify the upfront cost of solar installations, without subsidies, that are perceived as skewing the final cost. You might check with the City of Georgetown, TX to see how they determined that solar and wind energy were economically superior to the more common fuels for generation. They are well on their way to generating more wind energy than is needed for the City as a whole, annually, and will be adding solar generation in 2018.

  6. Avatar for TJ TJ says:

    I’m not worried. President elect Trump will seek and endorse alternative energy sources. Let’s give him a chance to lead.

  7. Avatar for Anthony Spadafora Anthony Spadafora says:

    Will adding solar to my home add to its value and consequently increase my property taxes?

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      Solar has been found to increase home sale price and how quickly a home sells. In many states, the value added to a home by solar panels is exempt from taxes. Head over to our main page and click on your state to learn more. We have a section on each state page about property tax exemptions.

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