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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Green Building in the Trump Era

According to Bill McKibben, ‘The damage from this election will be measured in geologic time’

“I know a lot about solar,” Donald Trump has claimed.
Image Credit: NBC

Most green building advocates are concerned about global climate change. So what are we to make of the election of Donald Trump?

Well, there is bad news and good news.

The bad news is that Trump is ignorant about basic economic facts relevant to the energy industry and is disdainful of scientific consensus. There’s more bad news:

  • Trump believes that climate change is a hoax;
  • Trump has promised to withdraw from (or, as he puts it, to “cancel”) the Paris Climate Agreement;
  • Trump has ridiculed supporters of renewable energy;
  • Trump has derided green buildings;
  • Trump has promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, which (along with the Department of Energy) administers the Energy Star Homes program;
  • Trump has promised to “bring back coal”;
  • Trump believes that “asbestos got a bad rap” and that federal asbestos legislation requiring safe handling of asbestos is a “stupid law.”

The good news is that Trump, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders, is apparently unaware that the U.S. Constitution will place certain checks on his power. Fortunately, he won’t have the legal authority to make good on all of his promises.

That said, you would have to be a Pollyanna to believe that this good news outweighs the bad news.

It’s me

Trump describes himself as a builder. (Still, I doubt that he reads GBA.)

He’s not just an ordinary builder; he calls himself the “greatest builder.” Let’s provide the full quotation: Trump said, “the greatest builder is me.”

It’s a mafia plot: Trump on asbestos

Here’s what Donald Trump has to say about asbestos legislation: “Asbestos is the greatest fireproofing material ever used, and everybody in the…

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  1. StoneCircle | | #1

    Climate Change and Trump
    I am very concerned about the new administration. Thanks for the summary. It really brings together a lot of the climate concerns in one place.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Bad news for conscientious workers at the DOE
    I just read a depressing article in the Washington Post titled "Trump transition team for Energy Department seeks names of employees involved in climate meetings."

    The article is worth quoting at length:

    The Trump transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which department employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output.

    The questionnaire requests a list of those individuals who have taken part in international climate talks over the past five years and “which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.”

    Trump and his team have vowed to dismantle specific aspects of President Obama’s climate policies. The questionnaire, which one Energy Department official described as unusually “intrusive” and a matter for departmental lawyers, has raised concern that the Trump transition team was trying to figure out how to target the people, including civil servants, who have helped implement policies under Obama.

    ... Thousands of scientists have already signed petitions calling on the president-elect and his team to respect scientific integrity and refrain from singling out individual researchers whose work might conflict with the new administration’s policy goals.

    This potential clash could prompt a major schism within the federal government, with many career officials waging a battle against incoming political appointees.

    One question zeroed in on the issue of the “social cost of carbon,” a way of calculating the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. The transition team asked for a list of department employees or contractors who attended interagency meetings, the dates of the meetings, and emails and other materials associated with them.

    The social cost of carbon is a metric that calculates the cost to society of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The Obama administration has used this tool to try to calculate the benefits of regulations and initiatives that lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

    Another question appeared to delve deeply into the mechanisms behind scientific tools called “integrated assessment models,” which scientists use to forecast future changes to the climate and energy system. It also asked what the Energy Department considers to be “the proper equilibrium climate sensitivity,” which is a way that climate researchers calculate how much the planet will eventually warm, depending upon the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

    “My guess is that they’re trying to undermine the credibility of the science that DOE has produced, particularly in the field of climate science,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford climate and energy researcher, in response to the question about the Integrated Assessment Models.

    The questionnaire also appeared to take aim at the national laboratories, which operate with a high degree of independence but which are part of the Energy Department. The questionnaire asked for a list of the top 20 salaried employees of the labs, the labs’ peer-reviewed publications over the past three years, a list of their professional society memberships, affiliations, and the websites they maintain or contribute to “during work hours.”

  3. Dana1 | | #3

    States will again lead
    The midwestern wind industry (in primarily red states) provides more jobs than the coal industry, and has provided more NEW jobs in the past 5 years than the fracking boom. The retail and wholesale electricity pricing in high wind fraction states have dropped due to the low marginal cost. Even without the PTC it is competitive against all thermal coal, and some combined cycle gas (even at record low spot market pricing of gas.) Destroying that industry would require onerous regulations (a has happened in Ohio) but is going to face some stiff headwinds by both parties, since it would be a job-killing thing to do.

    Solar is another high employment industry that eclipses coal too, but more highly concentrated in blue & purple states. But even in those states utility scale solar is cheaper than simple cycle gas, and is a cheaper solution than gas peakers for many applications. It's been "discovered" by both utilities and state regulators, and won't go away even federal policy support evaporates. Small distributed solar is duking it out state by state with utilities & some regulators, but even without the federal income tax credit subsidy it's cheaper now than it was with the subsidy in 2013. Solar isn't going away.

    California isn't going to roll over on their automotive emissions standards, which also get applied to a signatory consortium of other states adding up to more than 30% of the car market.

    California is still dedicated to 50% renewable power by 2030.

    New Yorks Reforming Energy Vision won't be rolled back- it's not the federal government driving it.

    The RGGI states aren't going to revert to burning fossils.

    Massachusetts has mandated a minimum amount of off-shore wind by a date certain.

    While federal policy support is welcome, it's not nearly as necessary as it was a decade ago, and the ship of policy can't be turned on a dime. At the projected cost of solar by 2025 it will be the cheapest form of energy available (of any type) world wide. While slowing the transition does damage, the transition has already passed the levelized cost and bankability tipping points.

    It's harder to completely disassemble large government organizations such as the EPA or DOE than one might think. Blackisting DOE employees based on their prior project experience while ominous in style, will surely face legal challenges. This is not the 1950s movie industry under attack by McCarthy, though it may feel that way.

    History may not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes, and we don't really forget the earlier verses quickly.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    I appreciate your list of optimistic predictions.

    That said, I wonder whether the Trump administration's announced plans to reverse progress on the climate change agenda will irrevocably undermine global attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

    I also worry that Trump will repeat the Ronald Reagan error (older Americans may remember Reagan's dismantling of NREL in Golden, Colorado) on a much larger scale -- destroying the energy-efficiency research efforts at NREL and ORNL, scattering scientists, and destroying programs that will take decades to put back together.

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    It's not just my point of view
    Analysis of the Brookings Institute paper on 8 December covered on today's Midwest Energy News site supports some of the notion that wind & solar can now compete on price independently of pricing the externalities and that states (even deep red states) will not be sitting on their hands or rolling over on command:

    Also released this week from a group at the University of Texas was an economic analysis of the lowest levelized cost new generation in each & every county of the lower 48, with and without externalities priced-in, under both a high and low natural gas cost scenarios, as well as a second-cheapest source map county by county.

    There is a lot of information packed into those graphics- it's pretty dense, and it takes reading and re-reading the relevent text to fully grasp it. But the bottom line is that wind is big, REAL big in the coal burning states, as long as the (job-killing) regulations constraining wind development in some of those states gets dialed back. In much of the midwest even without pricing the externalities wind already competes on price against combined cycle natural gas even under today's (near record) low gas prices, as seen in Figure 2 p.11 of that document. With any sort of pricing of carbon and a high priced gas scenario (Figure 11) wind, and even nuclear (assuming it runs a high capacity factor for the assumed 50 year lifecycle) takes a huge chunk out of the dominance of natural gas, but wind only somewhat more prevalent in the high gas price than the low gas price scenario (Figure 12.)

    With committments from a handful of high population states for radical reductions in emissions withdrawing federal supports won't make a heluva lot of difference, and it won't be a huge cost adder for the ratepayers in those states.

    If there is a silver lining in appointing TX Governor Rick Perry to head the D.O.E. (provided he survives the congressional approval process and stays out of jail on lingering corruption charges) is that he better than most of the Trumpian cabinet appointees understands just how cheap and effective wind power is (TX is the national leader, which happened under his watch), and he may be willing to push back on the expensive and counterproductive ethanol fuel lobby. The fact that nuclear power (& arms materierals programs) are under D.O.E. control is of interest too. The notion that a new nuke is going to run at high capacity factor for 50 years doesn't recognize just how rapidly they become useless in a high renewables scenario, and if you cut the lifecycle assumption in half they become quickly uneconomic. Without federal financing guarantees nuclear power is simply not bankable, since it's an enormous bet on the long term future of the market that no private banks will take on without the guarantees- it's too expensive, and too uncertain, and the industry track record on cost overruns is unconscionable. It's not clear just how willing the Trump/Perry D.O.E would be willing to go to continue subsidizing the nuclear industry, and if they pull way back on the policy supports, there is no future there (none!), for better or for worse.

    Despite Perry's prior campaign verbiage about getting rid of the department entirely, that is simply not possible, even they tried, though some departments could fall apart from attrition or outright canceling of programs, ala the Reagan era mishandling of NREL. But unlike 1982 wind & solar are now on an even (or advantaged) footing with other power sources, and even Trump voters are in favor of clean energy, independently of where they might stand on climate change.

    Stopping popular, cost effective, growing-employment industries in their tracks by government fiat or gutting federal programs simply can't happen, despite Mr. Trump's personal antipathy toward wind turbines. If the Trumpian party takes that route there WILL be push back, some from places unexpected by the casual observer, and the states /cities/ corporations will continue to lead.

    The world isn't going to follow that potential parade to hell either. Solar regularly beats subsidized oil generation in open bidding in oil producing middle east states, marking some of the cheapest electricity contracts anywhere at any time in history, and China's & India's drive toward solar & wind will continue unabated, since it cheaper than imported (or in many cases domestic) fossil fuels, and has local air pollution relief benefits. If the renewables industry in the US is successfully scuttled (despite long odds), it only means that the US will become poorer as the developing world becomes greener, since the renewable energy industries represent some of the best growth opportunities in the past century.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    You and I agree on the fact that renewable sources of energy are rapidly becoming more affordable than non-renewable sources, which is why my article quoted Daniel Cohan, who said, "The only way to make coal viable again is to stop the growth of renewables, which isn’t going to happen.”

    The scary issue concerns the federal government's response to climate change. Under Obama, our federal government's efforts were "too little, too late." Even the insufficient policies enacted under Obama, however, are now likely to be reversed by Trump.

    Back in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, climate activists fretted over the "too little, too late" problem. Since then, we've let 19 years elapse with very little action.

    Governments are capable of taxing carbon emissions and using those tax revenues to subsidize renewable energy options, but very few governments have done so. Certainly the U.S. has failed in this regard. So the Trump victory remains bad news, in spite of the economic facts that you cite.

  7. charlie_sullivan | | #7

    1997 was 19 years ago. Time flies.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Charlie Sullivan
    Thanks for catching my typo.

  9. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #9

    The goals of the CPP will be exceeded, with or without the CPP
    The CPP was a stripe on the floor, not a hurdle, but the very act of running it up the flag pole was enough to get state regulators in the high-carb states to at least take a look at the costs of doing something other than business-as-usual, and even the most recalcitrant had to admit that compliance using least cost methods were going to save ratepayers money, and that going beyond the targets in most cases had even greater savings. The CPP was window dressing, political theater targeted at international players to impel discussions toward further agreements.

    The wonky analysts over at GTM are indicating that corporations are accelerating their green energy goals in the face of an impending rollback of policy support. For the past few years corporations have signed up for even more lo-carb power purchase agreements than utilities have under state RPS mandates (!), and that trend is accelerating. Corporations buying green power outside of the RPS does not reduce the state mandates for the utilities. Despite the easy green washing-marketing aspects, a major factor driving corporations to buy renewable power under PPAs is that it's cheaper (or at least not more expensive), and it provides price certainty into the future, thereby reducing risk. Target & Wal-Mart each own and buy more solar power than ANY utility company, and it's because it saves them money in the near term and mitigates price volatility risk (they have shareholders to answer to!)

    The Las Vegas casinos who even paid exit fees to get off the NV energy bandwagon to buy renewables aren't exactly the kinds of businesses people normally think of as environmentalist or green, but they DO know all about mitigating financial risk- they're in it for the money, not the green credits.

    Kermit had it wrong- it's actually IS easy to be green, at least in the wholesale power contract world.

    No amount of policy support short of massive subsidy is going to make the fossil fuel biz more profitable or substantiallyl cheaper to the end user. Renewables as-is are competitive, and will only become more so as production volumes increase. That wasn't the case in 1997.

    The cheapest and surest way to lower the price of oil in the intermediate term is to ramp up production of electric vehicles, cutting oil demand. The US is already at peak-car, with sales and miles driven all pretty static. While increased EV penetration here would be good- the real effects are going to happen in the emerging growth markets, initially China & India, both of which are strongly committed to EV support for a range of reasons beyond mere climate change. Both countries are net oil importers even at their current vehicle fleet sizes, and as the populations drive more it would bankrupt their national treasuries to do it on oil, and both are dealing with serious urban air pollution problems. In India it will be illegal to sell light trucks and cars with internal combustion engines starting in 2030.

    At current prices the fossils in the ground that can count as proven reserves is shrinking, not because they aren't really there, but because it's not cost effective to extract them: As the high growth-economies deepens& cheapen electric vehicle options, demand growth in oil (which has actually been pretty static) , will become negative demand growth. Oil based fuels will become cheaper, but almost nobody will care. On a lifecycle cost basis it's already cheaper to buy drive a Tesla for 250,000 miles than a Camry, it's only the up-front cost that is impeding sales. India intends to get around that problem with creative financing, but they may not need to for long, given the double digit financial learning curve of batteries.

    We have already passed the tipping point, where economic growth does not mean higher carbon emissions, even in some higher growth countries. That trend will continue, even accelerate no matter how low the prices of coal & oil fall, and it will happen in the US even without policy support. But the employment (and employment GROWTH) numbers in the renewable energy biz are shining enough that even climate denying business-minded policy makers would attack those industries at their peril. Business is business, and lower cost high growth incumbent disruptive businesses are GOOD businesses to get behind. It's not partisan- in the US there is more solar installed in red counties than blue, and there is more wind power installed in red counties than blue.

    So is it going to be enough, or happen fast enough to prevent signficant climate change? I'm less than sanguine on that front. But I don't believe the incoming US administration's actions will make much of a difference in either direction, unlike the regime changes of 1980 or 2000. This time around the cleaner stuff is already cheap enough, and getting cheaper faster every day, while fossil energy commodity pricing continues to be volatile, trending less competitive compared to the relentless learning curves of renewables.

    Meanwhile the states with active policy support really WILL lead (as they always have, really) as long as the feds (driven by fossil fuel lobbyists) don't throw up roadblocks:

  10. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #10

    ...and investment bank Lazard piles on with their LCOE v.10.0
    A couple of years ago I thought it would take until 2030 for PV to become the cheapest form of energy, but now it looks like to happen prior to 2020. Lazard's just-released analysis confirms the gist of the University of Texas study showing that wind & solar are already competitive even without subsidy:

    The cost of electricity storage is crashing faster than analysts thought possible even last year, and Lazard is also starting to track that industry.

    The cost problems of low-carb energy sources has essentially been solved- it's a lousy time to be starting a career in the fossil-extraction biz. The key to making it happen fast enough still takes governmental policy support, but this stuff is popular across the political spectrum, and now cheaper than incumbent energy suppliers. That policy support doesn't have to be from the US federal government to be viable.

    The automotive fleet essentially retires itself on a 15-25 year cycle. Getting the power generation fleet into early retirement could be accelerated with things like carbon taxes, but thermal coal is already sufficiently uneconomic that merely building out more wind & solar would do it in. With gas fire generation the storage piece will take down simple cycle peakers, and in combination with cheap renewables could cut sufficiently into the capacity factors of combined cycle generators to render them similarly uneconomic within the next 15 years.

    It's not time to abandon hope just yet!

  11. lutro | | #11

    Thanks, Dana
    I appreciate your detailed analysis and perspective. Thank you for posting in such detail and clarity.

  12. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #12

    It's like I posted earlier... (@ Derek)
    "History may not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes..."

    This time around is QUITE different, a different verse entirely, since the financial numbers (and the banking sector that finances it all) favors ramping up renewables, independently of what the political blow-hard classes are pushing on the campaign trail.

    Passing a law that Pi must equal 3 ( ) doesn't mean the universe is going to conform to that, and even if coal were subsidized to the point that the fuel was free (instead of its now historical low) it won't be a cheaper way to make electricity than wind (see the fuel price sensitivies case on p.5 of the Lazard LCOE 10.0.)

    New coal plants are un-bankable, and legacy plants are getting less profitable every day. The recent weeks' attempt to save legacy coal in IL by tying it to the energy bill by which they saved Exelon's legacy nukes failed to save the legacy coal. Nobody (except the owners) wanted to keep them running, and even saving the low-carb but unprofitable legacy nukes took some horse trading. Caution: sausage making ahead... :-) :

    In Q3 2016 the US was installing about 2 megawatts (DC) of solar per hour, and the pipeline of utility scale PV already lined up for 2017 & beyond those installation numbers are likely to continue to be beaten (by quite a bit!) over the next several years, even if the feds pull back. The average utility solar plant runs a capacity factor of about 20%, the average coal plant 55%, so it takes nearly 3 gigawatts of solar to produce as much annual power as a gigawatt coal-burner, but at 2MW/hour installation rate that takes less than three weeks. And as solar prices have continued to fall, the installation rate has been growing exponentially.

    By the end of the Trumps first (& only?) term it'll likely be going up at more than a gigawatt coal-plant's worth per week, driven by raw economics as much as by government (all levels) policy. It doesn't mean all that PV power will auto-magically be offsetting that much carbon, but it'll be a reasonable fraction thereof, especially as utility regulations and grid operators adjust to the brave new world of already-cheaper-than-gas-peaker grid storage, and even cheaper PV.

  13. bencarsan | | #13

    Trump's cabinet of petro goons and what it means
    Alex Steffen has an interesting take on Trump and energy:

    Steffen sees the Trump administration propping up a carbon bubble that is then going to burst suddenly rather than deflating slowly.

    "People who are looking to understand what the Trump gang is up to would do well to consider his gang’s actions through the lens of the Carbon Bubble. Understand that the amounts of money at stake are vast, nearly inconceivable to most of us, and highly concentrated in the hands of the people in Trump’s cabinet and their close friends and business allies.

    Journalists are unused to thinking about climate change as being an economic and financial issue — much less the core political issue of our day — so for a lot of us this whole problem is invisible, despite the credibility of everyone pointing it out. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, frankly, because we are so cognitively unprepared to see the Bubble in front of us."

    The United States of Enron is a frightening specter.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Bennett Sandler
    Thanks for the link.

    I'm usually reluctant to endorse an analysis that smells like a conspiracy theory. But right now, some extremely wealthy men are taking power in Washington, DC -- and these are men who are more interested in preserving their economic assets than in listening to climate scientists. So even those of us who don't like conspiracy theories need to keep our eyes peeled and our ears open. Weird stuff is happening.

  15. bencarsan | | #15

    re conspiracies
    Martin, I agree--it's probably not the kind of conspiracy the author seems to imply.

    Trump's reactionary and an opportunist, so America great again means all gas and no brakes, going back to muscle cars and rock and roll and the pedal to the metal, reality be damned. No surprise he's attracted to a bunch of billionaire "git 'er done" bullies who have too much testosterone, speak his language, and share his interests--crony capitalism and banana republic economics. They know his game and he knows theirs. It's just a good ol' boy jamboree.

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