Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles published concerning President Trump’s attitudes towards climate change and what they mean for energy policy in his administration. This week’s article examines the energy implications of President Trump’s infrastructure plan and a possible shift back towards Republican environmental stewardship, while last week’s article looked at his energy action plan and the barriers facing it. The first article can be seen here.
Time for an Infrastructure New Deal?
Aside from the growing economic contribution of renewable generation technologies themselves, modernization of U.S. electrical grid infrastructure is perhaps the best opportunity for meaningful climate action during the Trump administration. Currently, electricity in the United States is transmitted and consumed within three geographically distinct grid systems, centered on the Eastern and Western seaboards and in Texas. Because these systems rely on inefficient and aging alternating current transmission cables, electricity cannot be economically transmitted between these grids, regardless of its generation source. As a result, electricity generated from renewables is periodically unable to be linked to sufficiently large demand markets, resulting in wasted generation potential.
Examples of this issue, known as “curtailment,” include Texan utility companies paying wind farms to shut down their turbines on windy days, and solar panels outside Tucson, Arizona, being left inert on sunny days. Coupled with the fluctuation or “intermittency” of energy supply from individual solar and wind generation facilities, curtailment presents a significant roadblock hindering private sector uptake of renewable energy investment opportunities. The fact that renewables are consistently breaking global records under these constraints suggests that we are only beginning to capture their true potential.
Proposals for grid modernization, such as the Clean and Secure Grid Initiative, have suggested a realistic pathway through which these challenges can be addressed while providing a level playing field for all energy technologies to compete, creating thousands of jobs, and meeting emerging security threats that are aligned with the Republican agenda. The initiative proposes establishing a tax credit for private sector investment in an underground high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission system to connect the three isolated U.S. electrical grids. This system would enable the efficient transmission of energy across long distances, allowing energy technologies to compete on an even footing. Aside from its associated short- and long-term job creation benefits, a national grid would provide significant grid-security benefits, including protection from environmental disasters and terrorist threats.
A groundbreaking study underlying this initiative indicates that, with a national grid, the United States has sufficient geographic and meteorological diversity to supply much of moment-to-moment electricity demand from renewable sources without the need for battery storage and with the technical possibility of up to an 80 percent reduction in power sector carbon emissions. Importantly, this emissions reduction potential does not come at the cost of arbitrarily selecting energy industry winners and losers or increasing electricity costs for consumers. A Priority List of emergency and national security infrastructure projects prepared for the Trump administration suggests that there is significant mutual interest in this opportunity.
Looking Beyond Trump’s Symbolic Gestures
While early signs have been troubling, climate activists should not give up on the prospect of collaboration with more conservative-leaning players. Most of Trump’s early environmental executive actions should be understood for what they are: symbols rather than substance. A State Department assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline suggests that fossil fuel companies will find alternative pathways to sell their oil regardless of whether the pipeline is installed or not. Federal greenlighting of these projects will not exempt them from state-level regulatory scrutiny nor will it reverse increasingly grim global oil market conditions.
The significance of Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement is more difficult to quantify. On one hand, it demonstrates the President’s misunderstanding of what the Agreement actually is—an international accord comprising individual country-level climate mitigation and adaptation commitments known as “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs). On the other hand, Trump could issue an executive order withdrawing U.S. participation from the Paris Agreement, even though the United States would remain legally bound to its procedural commitments for up to four years.
While they would be hotly contested, there are various avenues through which the United States could fail to achieve its NDC, including by not implementing the Clean Power Plan and by reneging on its $3 billion pledge to support developing countries in implementing their NDCs. The geopolitical implications of stepping down from this leadership role, however, should not be lost on Trump’s more strategic-thinking cabinet members. Already, China is positioning itself to capitalize on international goodwill from this potential void in climate leadership.
Make Conservatives Conserve Again
Supporting America’s booming clean energy sector through infrastructure investment offers perhaps the fastest avenue through which the Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill can fulfill campaign promises for domestic economic rejuvenation. Rejecting this olive branch would be a dangerous move for Trump, especially given that a healthy majority of Americans acknowledges the causality and severity of climate change and support taking robust action against it. Already, many right-of-center political groups are beginning to realign themselves according to this growing consensus. Some have even begun to explore more radical opportunities for free-enterprise-oriented climate legislation such as a revenue-neutral and border-adjusted carbon tax.
Rather than a challenge, the Trump administration should see this enthusiasm as an opportunity to revive the tradition of Republican environmental stewardship. From the creation of our first national parks under Teddy Roosevelt to the establishment of the EPA under Richard Nixon and the Clean Air Act under George H.W. Bush, conservatives historically have found pragmatic and market-compatible solutions to some of our greatest environmental challenges. Time to act on climate change is of the essence as 2016 broke global heat records for the third year in a row.