What Now? A Way Forward for the Clean Energy Community

I imagine many in the renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental communities are still trying to wake up from what they are hoping is just a bad dream. Well, let me tell you, Donald J. Trump is not the result of a piece of bad fish you ate or some incubus who has dropped in to disturb your sleep.

No, indeed, DJT is the next President of these here United States. Deal with it!

By dealing I don’t mean coping or carping. I mean we as a community need to sit down and figure out what can be donetogether—to keep the climate train on the tracks.

Let’s start with something of a probable positive — an observation addressing the President-elect’s oft repeated promise to end the war on coal.

The reality of today’s energy market is that coal is increasingly less competitive. As I have pointed out before, king coal is no longer a merry old soul because of the operation of the market, not regulations. Nothing—short of heavy federal subsidies or enactment of a fossil portfolio standard—is going to change that.

Talk of saving the coal industry is babbling about when elephants learn to fly. Nothing is going to change that—not President Trump and not the maintained Republican majorities in Congress. Not even coal state journals believe this to be other than myth—convenient to get elected, not possible to make good on.

Less mythical and more likely is the impact DJT, XLV is going to have on the Paris Accord. Trump and the Republican Party walked the plank of opposition to the Obama administration’s commitment to combat global warming and to transition the world away from fossil fuels towards a clean energy economy. The candidate and his surrogates identified the 2015 Paris Accords as a prominent target of opportunity in their scheme to make America great again.

World leaders were sufficiently worried about a possible Clinton loss, but they managed to ratify the COP21 agreement months ahead of even the most optimistic projections. As a consequence, the Accord was entered into force on Nov. 4, 2016—mere days ahead of the U.S. presidential election.

I take no pride in having warned about finding solace in the security of the Accords even in the shade of a Republican electoral victory. Unlike other promises to reverse the emergence of a clean energy economy requiring action, Trump need do nothing in the case of the Paris agreement to make good on this particular one.

The distinction between the need to act and to ignore will prove an important one. First, however, let’s consider the foundations of enmity felt by DJT towards a cleaner and more sustainable global climate.

Opposition by both the President-elect and significant numbers of Republican members of the House and Senate is minimally based upon:

  • Commitment to cancelling President Obama’s unilateral executive actions and orders—of which matters like the Clean Power Plan, Clean Water and Ozone Rules top the list;
  • General resistance to regulation particularly those they can claim are job killing;
  • An overarching desire to diminish, if not disband, the Environmental Protection Agency;
  • Disbelief that pollution/climate change/human action are in any way related or harmful    to the health and welfare of the nation or the world and the scientific basis of the conclusion   is at best whack and at worst self-serving by scientists in search of funding;
  • Belief that U.S. cannot be energy independent without continued dependence on coal; and,
  • What appears to be an abiding belief that solar and wind are somehow culpable for coal’s plight.

The easiest targets for the incoming administration are regulations based on Executive Orders, especially those that have or are encountering substantive legal challenges to the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to promulgate them in the first place. Much of what President Obama has accomplished in terms of climate and clean energy has unfortunately been a function of his power as the chief executive.

I say unfortunate, because what one President’s pen hath writ can be erased by his successor. Traditionally, incoming presidents have acceded to an outgoing’s request to maintain some executive continuity. Nothing about this election or the Republican nominee is traditional. Trump’s supporters are expecting significant change in the first 100 days; he is going to disappoint them at his peril.

DJT/XVL has overpromised what he can accomplish quickly; environmental regulations based on executive actions and drafted by an agency itself created by an order of the president should prove as easy as it is going to get. Even should the courts find the Clean Power Plan and the Water and Ozone rules constitutional, the new administration can choose not to enforce them.

As I will discuss in future installments, targets like tax credits, state clean energy policies and  programs not dependent upon federal funds or authorizations and growing demand for distributed energy systems, powered by solar and wind and kept running by batteries, will be much harder targets to attack.

The most vulnerable targets of opportunity, beyond Paris and the power, water and ozone regulations already referenced, likely include:

  • Pipeline permitting, e.g. Keystone and Dakota Access;
  • Allowing extraction of oil and gas reserves from federal lands;
  • Fracking rules that have also come under judicial review;
  • The budgets of federal agencies, e.g. Energy, Interior and Environment connected  to clean energy sources and the environment—including not replacing retiring federal program personnel; and
  • The appointment of federal lower and appellate court judges—not the least of whom will be Scalia’s successor.

The relatively greater vulnerability of environmental regulations and policies troubles me—not only for the potential to roll back the progress made to date—for what it means to the larger clean energy and environmental communities.

I had written in a column this summer of concern about the growing fissures in the relationships within and between the renewable energy and environmental communities. I gave as an example of my concern the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert — a project opposed for its impact on nature and supported for its production of green electricity.

I had written then:

Big versus little, rich versus poor, strong versus weak, conservationist versus environmentalist, solar versus wind, wind versus biomass, biomass versus environmentalist… state government versus federal—we are a global community divided.

It is easy to see how an early focus on environmental targets could create negative pressures on already fissured relationships. We have seen it most recently in the carbon tax initiative in Washington state.

As always, in any given year there will be winners and losers within our community. Do not let what happened on Nov. 8 divide us. Today’s winners could well be tomorrow’s losers. We have come this far together; to now go it alone, to not chart a course that fights for environmental justice, while recognizing the requirements of the marketplace is to court defeat.

Throughout this series I will be addressing an agenda I hope accommodative of the concerns of the whole community and able to capture its collective strength. The next installment of the series will describe some of the weapons we have at our disposal, e.g., citizen law suits and community power, for charting a new passage in the book of transition.

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Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( www.civilnotion.com ). Joel recently returned to private practice after serving as the Executive Director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.  He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; and, sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. He has recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at thejbsgroup78@gmail.com .

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