Global Wind Energy Insight: ‘We’re Moving On’

Well, what was unthinkable just a short while ago is now the reality, and Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States, sending shockwaves across the U.S. and around the world. The press and social media are rife with speculation about which of the many and often conflicting positions he took during the campaign will become reality.

Much can be read (or not) into a recent (Nov. 22) New York Times interview where he struck a partly conciliatory tone, saying he wasn’t going to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her emails; he wasn’t going to start waterboarding people again; that he was ‘keeping an open mind’ about the Paris Agreement; and that he acknowledged ‘some connectivity’ between human activity and observed climate change.

I was en route to the UNFCCC’s COP 22 in Marrakech when the news came through, and while there were lots of tears, rage, sadness and fear among the many U.S. delegates at the conference, and shock and disbelief among most international delegates, the general attitude was ‘whatever the U.S. does, we’re moving on’.

Perhaps the most sought-after and interesting response was from China. After having repeatedly warned candidate Trump that any move to pull out of Paris would have grave diplomatic consequences, the Chinese delegation in Marrakech rose to the occasion, and somewhat reluctantly, donned the crown of ‘climate leader,’ which the U.S. has held for the past several years. Indeed, it was the cooperation between China and the U.S. last year which set the tone that allowed for the diplomacy resulting in the Paris Agreement, and which saw it enter into force on Nov. 4 — record time for such an agreement.

The general attitude at COP 22 was ‘whatever the U.S. does, we’re moving on’ — Click to Tweet

China’s position was clear — they were moving ahead as planned. After explaining to the U.S. that rather than a ‘Chinese hoax,’ they observed that international climate diplomacy was set in motion under President Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher) in 1988 with the establishment of the IPCC and the early negotiations leading up to the conclusion of the UNFCCC in Rio, which was quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush in 1992, just before he left office. The supreme irony, of course, is that the public face of U.S. climate policy has for the past decade or more been ‘to get China on board.’ Whether or not the U.S. had anything to do with it, it is clear that China is ‘on board.’

China is the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines, solar PV panels and solar hot water heaters, and is leading the world in total installations of all of these technologies. China seems to be the one country which took President Obama’s 2009 exhortation to heart: “the country that leads in clean energy technology will lead the economy of the 21st century.” Not only is there an overwhelming domestic imperative to wean the country off coal for human health and local environmental reasons, there is an economic imperative as well; the same imperative which is driving the clean energy industry globally. Perhaps Mr. Trump will come around to that point of view eventually. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the fastest growing job in the U.S. is… (drum roll) …wind turbine technician.

Also refusing to be cowed by the (threatened) U.S. move were the 48 states which are members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which pledged to go to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050; and indeed, virtually all countries pledged to move ahead with Paris, and there were no indications of anyone following the (apparent) U.S. lead — not even the Saudis.

So what does this all mean for renewable energy in general, and for wind power in particular? Well, like so much else about the incoming Trump Administration, we just don’t know; and I don’t believe they do, either. The next few months will be critical, as cabinet positions are mooted, and they are confirmed (or not) by Congress. Mr. Trump may have a more difficult time with his own party in Congress than he expects.

The landmark deal which was agreed 12 months ago for the extension and phase-out of the production tax credit (for wind) and the investment tax credit (for solar), was done on a bi-partisan basis, and we are heartened by Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) statement that Trump would undo the deal ‘over my dead body.’ Grassley’s Iowa now gets 35 percent of its electricity from wind power. We have received information that the renewables industry is not on the target list, yet. However, the people that President Trump has put in charge of the transition in key areas, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Energy, are troubling indeed, as are the noises his people are making about slashing NASA’s climate research. We will have to wait, and watch, and fight when the time comes.

The other concern is Trump’s anti-trade stance. The wind industry has developed a global supply chain, and while it is far from perfect, increasing trends towards free movement of goods and services has helped the industry grow, reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Any backsliding on that front would have potentially severe negative consequences for the industry.

In the meantime, the industry continues to power ahead. Up until recently the main storm clouds for the industry lurked around Europe’s lagging commitment, and curtailment in China. A major new (orange) cloud has appeared on our horizon, but I’m confident that we’ll weather that storm as well.

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Steve Sawyer joined the Global Wind Energy Council as its first Secretary General in April 2007. The Global Wind Energy Council represents the major wind energy associations (China, India, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Canada, USA, Europe, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Korea, South Africa and Turkey) as well as the major companies involved in the global wind industry. At GWEC he is focussed on working with intergovernmental organisations such as the UNFCCC, IPCC, IRENA, IEA, IFC and ADB to ensure that wind power takes its rightful place in the energy options for the future; and with opening up new markets for the industry in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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