What Will a Clinton or Trump Presidency Mean for Renewable Energy? Part 1 – The History

Here we are again. Election 2016. Deemed “the most important election of our lifetimes” — the same claim made about the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections. As usual, each side is predicting that if their candidate’s opponent wins, we will witness the end of American democracy as we know it.

I have to declare myself a partisan. I support renewable energy. I believe that is good for our country and benefits our economy. However, that’s not a very controversial opinion to have. It is shared by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike; and that support is growing.

But what does it mean for a president to take office in 2017 who doesn’t have that belief? We know that Hillary Clinton shares similar policy positions to President Barack Obama supporting renewable energy. However, Donald Trump supports a revival of the coal industry, and has stated his concern that renewable energy is too expensive.

But the next President of the United States will not be the Emperor of America. In fact, the members elected to Congress are often as (if not more) important than the president when it comes to shaping energy policy; and governors and state legislators, down to mayors and local officials, can make a huge impact as well.

The first serious presidential efforts to support renewable energy development came during the Nixon Administration. Following the OPEC Oil Crisis in 1973, President Nixon created “Project Independence” focused on energy security and innovation. While not directly focused on renewable energy, he did tout the future potential of geothermal energy and noted “solar electric power” … among the … “ultimate keys to our energy future.”

Gerald Ford created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1974, shortly into his Presidency. He provided government support for research and development into geothermal, solar, wind, and energy conservation.

Jimmy Carter took this a step further by creating the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977 followed by signing the National Energy Act of 1978, which included tax credits for renewable energy, energy conservation goals and mandates, and the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which created a market for smaller non-utility energy producers to sell power from co-generation, biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and small hydro plants to electric utilities.

When Jimmy Carter lost his 1980 bid for re-election, it was feared that Ronald Reagan would undue all the momentum he created. There was a myth that upon taking office Ronald Reagan ordered the immediate removal of solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House. Yet that didn’t actually occur until 1986.

Granted, government funding for renewable energy was cut under the Reagan Administration and by the mid-1980s a decline in energy prices further reduced interest by policy makers for government investments in renewable energy. But it didn’t matter — PURPA was already creating a new market for renewable energy. The first major solar facility was built in the California desert in 1984 and new units were added through the rest of the decade. Geothermal plants were built in California, Nevada, and Utah during his first term, and installations continued to grow through the second half of the decade. The first utility-scale wind turbines were installed in California in 1981, and the industry grew in California thereafter.

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he remained supportive of clean energy and pollution reduction. He signed into law the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, building on the Nixon Administration’s Clean Air Act of 1970. An oil price spike following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent Gulf War in 1991 revived interest in renewable energy. President Bush subsequently signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which included tax credits for wind energy and increased investment in federal programs for renewable energy and energy conservation.

Bill Clinton took office in January of 1993 and proposed energy taxes on fossil fuels and a Climate Change Action Plan. But with energy prices on the decline, these policies had little support in Congress. States weren’t pushing for it. Neither was industry. Renewable energy still had limited growth globally and wind and solar energy were still in their early stages of technological development. Wind and solar grew slowly during the 1990s, while the geothermal industry completely evaporated during the latter half of the decade. Renewable energy was not part of Bill Clinton’s Presidential legacy.

But by the end of the 1990s, states were starting to reconsider the value of renewable energy. In 1999, then Texas Governor George W. Bush established one of the first state goals for renewable energy, which kick started the state’s wind industry. Granted, once George W. Bush became president, his Administration wasn’t a major advocate for renewable energy. But increased concern over climate change coupled with the rising global market for renewable energy increased demands for government investment.

More states started passing renewable energy goals. Pressure mounted on Congress to reinstate and increase tax credits. The geothermal industry made a comeback after the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which increased and extended its access to production tax credits. The legislation also extended tax credits for wind energy and created the 30 percent investment tax credit (ITC) for solar energy. After the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act extended solar tax credits through the end of 2016, as well as extending tax credits for wind and geothermal projects.

Once President Obama took office, he rapidly accelerated government investment in renewable energy. His opponents criticized that support as choosing renewable and alternative energy sources over fossil fuels. Yet, despite these concerns, the U.S. increased oil production by over 88 percent and natural gas production by over 28 percent between 2008 and 2015. For the record, oil production declined 14 percent and natural gas production increased by only 6 percent between 2000 and 2008.  Clearly, growth in fossil fuel production was not dependent on the policies of the Bush Administration nor hindered by the Obama Administration.  

But with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton holding such disparate views on energy policy, could this election have serious policy implications for renewable energy moving forward? Click here to read Part 2.

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Daniel Fleischmann is the owner of Mountain Man Alternative Energy Consulting. He has a decade of experience developing and managing renewable energy projects in the U.S. and has helped develop over $600 million in renewable energy capacity.

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