People, planet, and the path ahead
A farmer plows a recently harvested field with wind turbines in the background, near Rio Hondo, Texas. In addition to producing fossil fuels, the state is a leader in deploying wind energy.
Jason Hoekema/Valley Morning Star/AP/File | Caption

Clean energy has momentum, despite Trump's brush-off

President Trump is expected to issue an executive order to dismantle an Obama administration Clean Power Plan. But experts say that alone won't dictate what states and businesses do.

  • Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang
    Medill News Service

Given the policy priorities of the Trump administration, the conditions may not look ripe for America to make big progress on moving toward a low-carbon economy. But some energy experts offer a counter narrative, noting that states and large US companies are planning long-term moves toward clean energy that are likely to continue, even if new federal policies put up some obstacles.

Energy experts from the Obama and Clinton administrations, speaking at a Washington event Thursday, said many local governments and businesses see climate change as an economic risk that warrants action in response.

One action that’s already in motion is deploying clean energy.

“There's going to continue to be momentum to make these investments in the business community, particularly multinational companies that need to move ahead on clean energy across the supply chains,” said Karl Hausker, who served in the Clinton administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. “There's momentum in the electric utility industry – they need to plan long term. They can't just plan [based on] four years of this administration.”

President Obama’s goal was to reduce US carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 as America pursues pledges made alongside other nations in the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. President Trump is expected to sign an executive order within days aimed at rescinding Mr. Obama's Clean Power Plan, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Mr. Hausker led a recent study, concluding that the transition to a low-carbon economy requires up-front investments, but that those will ultimately be offset by reduced spending on fossil fuels.

About $320 billion in investment a year (roughly 2 percent of current gross domestic product) would be needed to achieve Obama’s 2050 goal, concludes the report. 

“Many of those [clean energy technologies], such as wind and solar, have little or no fuel cost once built. Given an appropriate policy framework, we expect these investments to be made largely by the private sector and consumers, and to yield significant returns,” says the report, which was published by Risky Business, an organization focused on publicizing the risks of climate change.

At the event Thursday, Mr. Hausker acknowledged that convincing the public of clean energy’s value is a challenge, since clean energy investments can require some time to produce results, and since the new president is steering in a different direction.

And many energy experts agree the transition toward clean energy will happen fastest when nations have policies such as carbon taxes, designed to give incentives to move away from fuels that push heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

But Noah Kaufman, who worked on Obama’s 2016 “mid-century strategies” for addressing climate change, also said at the event that the shift doesn’t hinge solely on federal policy – the business sector and states are moving forward with plans to increase their use clean energy.

“The government and the private sector have a synergistic role to play,” he said.

Both Mr. Kaufman and Hausker, who are both now at the World Resources Institute, said Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s record on clean energy as governor of Texas gives them some hope. Texas under Governor Perry set policies that allowed for a surge in wind power investment.

“States like Texas seized the economic benefits,” Hausker said. “We are going to see more of that.”

This article was produced in collaboration with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.