President-Elect Donald Trump has made clear his support for fossil fuels, which scientists have determined are a leading contributor to climate change.

On the campaign trail, Trump went as far as promising a triumphant comeback for coal, which produces the most greenhouse gases of all. Meanwhile renewable energy sources got mixed reviews from the candidate.

“I know a lot about solar,” Trump said at a Fresno campaign rally over the summer. “I love solar, except there’s a problem with it. It’s got a lot of problems with it. One problem is it’s so expensive.”

Sounds like enough to make any solar company executive break out in a sweat, but the mood in some executive suites is surprisingly buoyant.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Michael Wheeler of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar company. “We’re feeling as though we’re going to be okay.”

One reason: Wheeler says Trump’s perception of the cost is hopelessly out of date.

“Anybody who thinks that solar is expensive at the utility scale right now hasn’t seen the latest,” he says. “Solar’s price, because it’s a technology, will continue to go lower and lower.”

The Upside

Power from big solar projects is about 70 percent cheaper today than it was a decade ago. The cost of wind power has also come down.

That means, in some places, the price of the power they produce is competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas. Some electric utilities are choosing renewables based on cost alone, even in red states like Texas and Georgia.

“Clean energy is not a niche product anymore,” Wheeler says.”

The Barren Ridge solar project in Kern County, California.
The Barren Ridge solar project in Kern County, California. (Recurrent Energy)

The Trump Administration could also open more public land for development, something cheered by oil and gas companies and opposed by many environmentalists. But renewable energy companies also stand to gain.

“This is a place where we think we could do even better under a Trump administration,” Wheeler says. “We’ve had a very difficult time building solar on public lands under the Obama Administration.”

When state and federal agencies unveiled a recent plan prioritizing federal lands for renewables in California, the wind energy industry’s trade association said restrictions in the plan would “largely end wind energy development in California.”

The Downside

There are some other clouds in the forecast.

Solar and wind companies rely on longstanding tax credits, which were extended in Congress last December, after a lengthy struggle. The 30 percent Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) will expire at the end of 2019, when it starts ramping down eventually to 10 percent.

“The legislation is one of the greatest investments in renewable energy in American history,” said Senator Harry Reid upon passing the credit extension.

If the Trump Administration allows those credits to dry up, which could take several years, demand for solar and wind could drop.

“Certainly there would be a different forecast for price projection, but it’s not so significant that the market would crater,” Wheeler says.

The second potential downer for renewable energy: Trump has vowed to shelve one of the keystones in Obama’s climate change policy, known as the Clean Power Plan, under which states would have to move away from coal power. Wheeler says that would have quadrupled the market for renewables.

“We’re not depending upon it but to have that be messaged as being dead was pretty heart-wrenching,” he says.

States Drive the Market

“I think there’s no question that states are going to be critical,” said Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley. He says, sometimes, a hostile White House can actually energize regional efforts.

“Just like under President George Bush, we saw tremendous action at the state level.”

California is all in on renewables. State law requires 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and twenty-eight other states have their own targets, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards. That means the renewable energy market has momentum.

“An administration can dramatically put its finger on the scale and accelerate that or they can hold it back,” Kammen says.

In the meantime, worldwide demand is growing. Kammen just returned from Dubai, where a new solar farm is expected to break the record for lowest cost, a sign to him the solar industry can stand on its own.

“That is the MC Hammer of energy projects,” Kammen says. “Can’t touch this.”

Author

Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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