The Trump administration’s War on Renewable Energy has Cost the Industry 600,000 Jobs

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Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, experts agree that the world and its economies must transition to a 100 percent clean future powered by clean energy sources by midcentury. This transition presents an enormous employment opportunity for Americans, with the potential to provide scores of high-paying, sustainable unions jobs in the renewable energy industry across the country.

Despite this, since taking office, President Trump and his team have taken unprecedented steps to weaken and stall the renewables industry. The Trump administration is risking a burgeoning sector of employment to instead feed the bottom lines for its fossil fuel executive donors — with little to show for it regarding domestic job retention and creation.

In fact, this analysis finds that the Trump administration’s anti-renewables and pro-fossil fuel policies have led to the loss or suppression of at least 622,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector. With some experts predicting job losses of up to half the existing workforce due to the novel coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration’s previous misguided efforts to undermine this otherwise successful industry puts it at an even greater disadvantage.

Under Trump, previously strong growth in the renewables sector has slowed

The renewable energy industry has enjoyed strong and steady growth in employment over the last decade, much of which was spurred by Obama-era policies funding or incentivizing clean energy deployment. For example, solar energy’s share of electricity generation increased by 40-fold while wind’s quadrupled between 2008 and 2016, supporting similarly explosive growth in jobs in this sector. However, thanks to the Trump administration’s backwards environmental and economic policies, this growth rate has contracted since 2016.

Despite impressive statistics on past growth and future potential, particularly when compared with economic viability and job growth in the oil, gas, and coal sectors President Trump has done his best to hinder the renewable industry through both extreme rhetoric and action. He has called wind turbines an eyesore, blamed them for the death of wildlife despite easing penalties for it elsewhere, incorrectly claimed that they cause cancer and used fear mongering to seed doubts on the reliability and cost of these renewable energy resources — despite their market competitiveness with fossil fuels. Most recently, despite pleas from the renewable energy industry, President Trump even tweeted a dismissal of the clean energy provisions in the third COVID-19 relief package, conflating them with the Green New Deal.

Even more concerning than President Trump’s strange and hostile rants on renewables, however, is his administration’s concerted effort to actively undermine renewable energy development across the country, squashing the industry’s potential to create jobs. Below is an overview of the ways in which the Trump administration has undermined or suppressed the growth of at least 622,000 renewable energy jobs, even before the impact of the coronavirus on the industry.*

Five ways the Trump administration has undermined renewable energy

1. The Trump Administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan prevented the creation of over half of a million jobs

Jobs Lost: 560,000 between 2016 to 2030

Rolling back the Clean Power Plan: In 2019, the Trump administration repealed and replaced the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a policy at the center of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. The CPP would have required significantly reduced emissions from fossil fuel-fired powerplants — with a side effect of incentivizing the growth of low- to no-emissions energy sources such as wind and solar. In fact, an analysis by the business coalition E2 showed that the CPP — had implementation begun in 2016 as planned — would have created, by a high-end estimate, 560,000 new jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2030. By comparison, the Trump administration’s replacement plan, the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, allows for significant continued carbon emissions from power plants, and as a result encourages far less renewable energy growth, including zero new jobs.

2. The Trump administration’s economic policies have cost tens of thousands of jobs

Jobs lost: 62,000 between 2017 and 2021

Putting in place solar tariffs: In January 2018, as part of his half-baked protectionist trade policies, President Trump placed tariffs on imported solar cells and modules for the ensuing four years, making solar energy development more expensive and less economically competitive. The Trump administration’s stated impetus for the tariffs was to boost domestic manufacturing and employment, when in fact, for each new job created by the tariff, 31 additional jobs are expected to be lost.

The Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) predicts 62,000 fewer jobs, $19 billion in lost investment, and 10.5 gigawatts of lost solar deployment — enough to power 1.8 million homes — within the four year tariff window. Tariffs on solar are most negatively affecting budding solar markets, including those in Alabama, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas, where their costs to businesses make solar uncompetitive. In addition to the direct loss of jobs from these tariffs, the uncertainty and lack of transparency leading up to their implementation prompted businesses to preemptively delay new projects and jobs. This delay ultimately deferred the continued growth of the solar industry.

3. The Trump administration’s legislative and fiscal policy has undermined renewable energy industry potential

Jobs lost: at least 113,000 between 2020 and 2030

Blocking extension of clean energy tax credits: Late last year, Congress explicitly excluded critical tax credit provisions for solar, wind, electric vehicles, and energy storage technologies in the tax extenders bill it passed — stunting the creation of new clean energy jobs. Reportedly, excluding these clean energy tax credits was absolutely critical for the Trump administration to sign off on the extenders package that did pass, although the White House ultimately provided no justification for killing the incentives publicly. According to an analysis by Wood Mackenzie, an extension of the solar investment tax credit (ITC) would have resulted in 82 gigawatts of additional solar deployment and the creation of 113,000 U.S. solar jobs — raising U.S. solar employment to 553,000 jobs by 2030, or nearly double today’s pre-coronavirus numbers.

Slashing clean energy funding from the budget: Furthermore, arguably the administration’s greatest signal of their disinterest in fostering renewable energy jobs is evidenced in its annual Presidential Budget requests to Congress. Nowhere is the Trump administration’s preference for the fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewables more evident, touting American energy dominance with a distinct lack of vision for renewables. For example, in the President’s Budget Request to Congress for Fiscal Year 2021, Trump has requested a 74% cut to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, while holding steady the funding for the Office of Fossil Energy Research and Development. Unsurprisingly, the administration has proposed no new renewable energy initiatives for any department or agency.

4. The Trump administration has blocked renewable development on federal lands and waters

Jobs lost: at least 1,470

De-prioritizing renewable energy development on public lands: Under the Trump administration, national public lands have seen a stagnation of new wind and solar projects, despite the fact that the previous administration had primed the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for expedited responsible siting and approvals of both. Also under Trump, the BLM has failed to hold a single competitive lease sale on public lands for wind and solar, again despite a new rule empowering the Department to do so. Only two solar projects have been approved by the BLM under the Trump administration, and no wind or geothermal projects.

The National Renewable Energy Coordination Office, which included a staff of seven people in BLM’s DC headquarters and five regional coordination offices, was dissolved under the Trump administration, and renewable energy staff positions are noticeably absent from the current organizational chart. Additionally, access to high-level Interior officials has all but vanished for the renewable energy industry. Public calendars of Trump’s top two Interior officials, Secretary David Bernhardt and Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor, show that oil, gas, coal, and mining interests have held 225 meetings compared to the renewable energy industry’s nine. Conversations with former BLM staff indicate that under this administration, the agency has made no effort to utilize the land use planning process to identify renewable energy opportunities on public lands. Designated Leasing Areas for wind and solar — areas of high renewable energy potential and low levels of conflict — are explicitly left out of several recent Resource Management Plans.

Creating massive hurdles for offshore wind development: And the same is true in federal waters, where there is a clear example of political slow-walking in the instance of the Vineyard Wind offshore project near the Massachusetts coast. In August 2019, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) ordered an eleventh-hour sweeping environmental review of all proposed Atlantic offshore wind projects. This directly targeted and successfully delayed Vineyard Wind’s impending 800-megawatt Massachusetts offshore wind project, which now threatens the project’s eligibility for the currently phasing-out ITC, the extension of which was pulled from the tax extenders bill by the White House itself as discussed above. This move by BOEM forces Vineyard Wind to complete the additional review, on top of its previously submitted environmental review.

Recently, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced that the final environmental impact decision for this project, originally slated for the second quarter of 2020, will not be delivered until December — further delaying commercial operation, originally slated for a 2019 start-year, to 2023 at the earliest. According to the original Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Vineyard Wind, the now-delayed project is expected to produce over 1,400 jobs during preconstruction, construction, and installation and nearly 170 jobs during operations and maintenance. In addition, the completion of Vineyard Wind is largely expected to give the impetus to other states to pursue their offshore wind goals and the first real incentive to the offshore wind supply chain to begin considering localizing in the U.S — both potentially spurring many more domestic jobs in the future.

Although Vineyard Wind is the only offshore wind project officially delayed by BOEM’s directive for a cumulative environmental impact analysis, six gigawatts of planned offshore wind facilities in the Atlantic will now also be subject to this potentially politically motivated process down the line as they advance in the permitting process. Many of these projects hold immense promise for local economies and employment. For example, New Jersey’s Ocean wind is expected to create 15,000 direct jobs and $1.17 billion in economic benefits over its 25-year expected lifetime. In New York, Sunrise Wind and Empire Wind together would support more than 1,600 jobs in project development, installation, and operations and maintenance. Also in Massachusetts, the developers of Mayflower Wind have projected the creation of more than 10,000 jobs over the life of the project, and Revolution Wind in Rhode Island would generate more than 800 construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs.

While there have been concerns raised by the commercial fishing industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service during the permitting process, there is little indication that the Trump administration is interested in seriously engaging in thoughtful marine spatial planning, given that they have altered their own scientists’ recommendations in order to permit seismic testing — which would damage living marine resources off the Mid-Atlantic — on behalf of the oil and gas industry. Given that the president himself has been very critical of offshore wind, it is hard to see this sweeping review as anything more than an intentional roadblock for renewables.

5. The Trump administration has consistently prioritized fossil fuels, undermining renewables’ competitiveness

Re-writing the rules for environmental review to favor fossil fuels: Early in January 2020, Trump’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued one of this administration’s most sweeping environmental rollbacks to date, proposing to effectively gut federal environmental review through drastic changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)’s implementing regulations. The way that environmental review is currently structured, because renewable energy projects tend to have a “lighter footprint” than traditional drilling and mining projects, they tend to clear review faster.

Those speedier reviews were an important component in making renewable projects cost-competitive with other energy sources.

Now, the Trump administration’s changes to environmental review significantly favor the fossil fuel industry — waiving considerations of climate change from fossil fuel projects and getting rid of conflict-of-interest provisions — which could vault polluting projects like pipelines and oil and gas drilling ahead of renewables. This is already somewhat evident in the case of sweeping cumulative review, discussed above, to which BOEM has subjected offshore wind projects but not offshore drilling. It is clear that this broader NEPA action by the Trump administration could undermine one of the only competitive advantages previously afforded to clean energy projects.

Politicizing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: Fossil fuel favoritism is also clear in the case of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under President Trump, which was traditionally seen as an independent, non-partisan body which regulates wholesale sale of energy and transmission of electricity. Unfortunately, FERC has also been politicized by the Trump administration and unofficially reprogrammed to carry out the administration’s broader anti-environmental agenda.

To this end, in December 2019, FERC issued a controversial order to effectively make renewable projects across several midwestern and mid-Atlantic states more expensive. This order essentially demands the nation’s largest grid operator artificially increase the price floor for renewable projects that are subsidized at the state level (many of which are already in late planning stages), leaving fossil fuel projects and their significant federal subsidies untouched — and significantly disadvantaging renewable developments. The Trump administration is likely pushing forward this rule to safeguard the fossil fuel industry from displacement by new clean energy capacity. This ruling could potentially impact more than 750 independent solar and wind interconnection requests and could delay many potential clean-energy jobs.

Conclusion

The Trump administration’s efforts to destroy confidence in and squash the growth of the renewable energy industry aren’t limited to inflammatory rhetoric — the targeted and concerted policies which followed have unfortunately undermined real growth and prevented significant job creation in the sector. Considering that the industry will be critical in the transition to a clean energy future and in light of its potential to be a significant part of economic rebuilding after the coronavirus crisis, this administration’s efforts are egregiously short-sighted. Now, in the wake of even more extreme job loss from this sector as a result of the global pandemic, it will be up to Congress to safeguard the renewable energy industry from mass disruption and preserve its growth rate. It’s clear that the Trump administration has long abandoned both economic principles and the wellbeing of future generations, with no plans to slow its siege against the renewables industry.

* This is a conservative estimate. For simplicity’s sake and to avoid potential doubling counting, the authors assumed that 100% of the number of jobs which would have resulted from the extension of the clean energy tax credits in December 2019 would have overlapped with the number of jobs which would have resulted from the 2016 implementation of the Clean Power Plan. This accounting represents job suppression in the renewables industry from 2016 to 2030.

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Hard-hitting news + analysis paired with action on the issues that matter most. Working alongside @AmProg.

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