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The Andlinger Center Speaks: Trump and emerging energy technologies

January 9, 2017

On the stump, President-elect Donald Trump has stated repeatedly he wants to revive the faltering coal industry. Now post-campaign, he has given marquee jobs in his incoming administration to climate change deniers and people with strong ties to the fossil fuel sector. Scott Pruitt, who has fought against climate change policies as Oklahoma’s attorney general, has been tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Rick Perry, former Texas governor who has accused climate scientists of manipulating data on global warming, has been nominated to lead the Department of Energy. In light of these moves and comments, questions have arisen among business leaders, scientists, and environmentalists: How will the Trump administration impact emerging energy technologies and energy markets? Will certain U.S. policies on fossil fuel emissions and clean energy be reversed? And how will global warming and related international agreements be affected?

In this latest dispatch for “The Andlinger Center Speaks” series, we explore these issues with Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), and the director of the Center for Science Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP). Oppenheimer is an associated faculty member of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and serves on the center’s executive committee. A world-renowned expert on climate change science and policy, he is often quoted in the news media. For more on his background, read here.

In this Q/A, Oppenheimer touches on the uncertain future of emerging energy technologies –  such as solar and wind power, business incentives and opportunities in those technologies, how energy markets are favoring more sustainable energy sources, possible climate change policy changes, what can be done if the federal government is not aggressive on sustainable energy and global warming, and the role that organizations, such as the Andlinger Center, can play.

(In a previous, related Q/A for this series, we asked questions on Trump’s impact on climate change and science to Robert Socolow, professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the lead coordinator on the Andlinger Center’s Energy Technology Distillates. Read the Q/A here.)

How may Trump’s presidency impact emerging energy technologies, such as nuclear fusion, solar and wind power, and energy storage?

His positions on wind and solar remain unclear – in his mind, they could be tied too much to the climate issue. Or he could see these technologies as fully commercial and not needing further federal help. The nominee for energy secretary, Rick Perry, comes from a state with high penetration of wind and may understand this.

Subsidies for wind and solar power were renewed last year for five years. Much of this will remain in place no matter what Trump or his administration may think about climate change. The subsidies will continue unless U.S. Congress repeals them, and that is entirely unlikely.

Federal support for R&D for basic research tied to solar in particular is still needed, but its fate there is tied to larger issues about his attitude toward R&D.

As for fusion, I can only speculate. He could decide it would cure many problems at once and throw more resources at it. Or he could see it as a total waste of money and shut down federal support.

Storage is in a different situation because it seems to be a rapidly emerging technology needed for efficient grid operation regardless of one’s position on climate change. I imagine he would support its development.

Is there a business incentive for companies to prevent climate change, which can be considered a risk management problem? Have those incentives proven to be persuasive to companies who have previously resisted climate science?

At least some firms have awakened to the need to take climate change into account, in two ways: impacts of climate change affect certain businesses directly, like agribusiness.  Second, opportunities for profiting from new technological advances as the energy system evolves mean coal and oil may represent weaker opportunities for firms in the future compared to solar, wind, storage, etc. Some firms, like dinosaurs, will resist change and fade away. Others will leap to the challenge.

And the energy markets are now favoring natural gas and wind and solar power. Even without government intervention, coal combustion for electric power will diminish.

Is there a mechanism for independent actors like Andlinger Center to articulate the economic case for continuing investment in renewable energy? What would those be? What can we do in general?

The Andlinger Center, in collaboration with experts at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute, is in a position to provide the sorts of insights that would help generate stronger private and public investment support of RD&D for energy technologies that improve efficiency and meet environmental objectives at the same time. What approaches are on the horizon, which ones have already partially emerged and are approaching commercialization but need that extra push, and which ones look to be less promising for now at least?

How may the Trump administration impact climate change policies made under President Barack Obama?

One would expect – unless there is a radical reversal – that his administration will have backward-looking policies on climate change.

A lot of progress on climate change was made under the Obama administration, such as completion of the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants. Although it will be very difficult to reverse regulatory measures that the current administration has imposed, Trump and his team can immediately slow down implementation of the Clean Power Plan (whose implementation is delayed somewhat already by pending litigation), but they can’t immediately eliminate it. The picture would change if Trump is in office for a second term and his policies remain antagonistic to dealing with climate change. Results of the 2018 midterms and the next presidential campaign in 2020 will obviously bear watching.

Besides the Clean Power Plan, what other policies may be affected?

The second phase of the aggressive fuel economy standards for motor vehicles that were hammered out between the Obama administration and auto makers could be weakened or reversed. Auto companies have been pressing in this direction and doing so could happen much more easily and quickly than reversal of the Clean Power Plan.

 What can Americans do if Trump’s administration impedes or reverses climate change policies?

In the U.S., we have a lot of climate policy actions going on at the state and local level. That will have to be focus for people pressing for progress.

I would not give up on the federal level just yet. Regardless of an administration’s ideology, U.S. policy often aims for constructive directions on energy efficiency and R&D. Federal policies could also encourage renewable energy and building a more resilient electric grid.

What about his impact on international agreements, such as the Paris climate deal?

I doubt the U.S. will pull out of the Paris climate agreement because other countries may invoke countermeasures, which may take two forms. A country could deploy border tax adjustments on American imports because their own industries are paying more to follow the Paris climate agreement. The other countermeasure may involve a country making life difficult for the U.S. on another issue. This may be enough to cause Trump to proceed with caution.

Let’s look at China. China has a strong bilateral agreement with us on combating climate change that predates the Paris agreement. China is not going to be happy with America if we slack off on either agreement.  A climate reversal by the new Trump administration may cause yet another trouble spot to emerge in an already difficult U.S.-China relationship.

Is there a danger that other countries will follow us on not honoring the climate agreement?

China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, but we are the most powerful country in the world. If we reverse our previous climate leadership, other countries that are not fully committed to an aggressive effort on carbon dioxide emissions, for example India, may relax their implementation of the Paris accord and refrain from strengthening their commitment in the future.

At this point, this is all speculative. I think the Trump administration will not totally reverse progress on climate change, but they may throw sand into the gears and slow progress.

How will Trump’s administration impact global warming itself?

The Paris agreement’s objective of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius was already a difficult goal to achieve before Trump was elected. If America does very little for another four to eight years, it will make the goal virtually impossible.

The Andlinger Center Speaks is a Q/A series that features experts from the center addressing topical and timely energy and environmental issues.

For more information on the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, contact Sharon Adarlo, communications specialist, at sadarlo@princeton.edu or (609) 258-9979.