Trump climate policies worry many—perhaps unnecessarily

CaliforniaGeo 11-27-16

pro-coal-bumper-politics

Bumper sticker politics, circa 1979.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to bring back coal extraction and use, and made disparaging remarks about renewable energy.  So much and so often that many green thinking citizens are scared stiff over reversals in climate change policy. “Drill, baby, Drill!” former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin is reported as seeking the cabinet post of Secretary of the Interior, and is being considered by the Trump transition team.

Will recent progress in substituting renewable electricity for fossil combustion come undone?  Will the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan remain in place?  They won’t, according to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  But like his promises to prosecute his opponent, deport millions of illegal immigrants, and reform taxation to favor the middle class, President-elect Trump’s energy policy pronouncements may not last.

Nearly without exception, the worldwide scientific community is certain that greenhouse gas pollution results in climate change.  Oceans are already becoming more ice-free, and coastal flooding has increased during high tides and severe weather.  And these days, the cost metrics of coal produced electricity are not with Trump.

According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (based on 2013 data), the levelized cost of coal-fired electricity will be $95.10 per megawatt hour in 2020.  Commercial wind came in at $73.60.  Solar PV was 32% higher than coal, but has since dropped precipitously to rest below coal’s monetary cost.

energy-set17-2

Coal leaving eastern Utah by rail.

In a 3/18/11 post by Skeptical Science, a website working to fight climate change denials, there are a number of additional costs to society that aren’t figured in to coal’s generation of electricity.  Economists refer to these as “externalities.”  For coal, this list includes government coal subsidies, citizen illness and mortality due to mining pollution, climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, acid rain, and water pollution.

In large part, the shift to renewables is already underway.  Electric utilities are getting in the game, and financial institutions are backing far more green investment.  Fossil fuels of all kinds are facing divestment, revealing a powerful shift in investor confidence.  Other governments are supporting climate change combat.

energy-storage-size-overview

Lithium ion batteries have spawned a revolution.

Against such green winds as these, there is little to gain for the Trump administration to double down on coal.  The major problems of generation intermittency for renewable electricity have been solved with grid storage technology, and renewable fuels are always free.  We are headed for far more electric vehicles and zero net energy buildings that don’t burn carbon (courtesy of geothermal heat pumps).  Trump cannot stop this green train without ignoring most of the other issues that reach the White House.

—Bill Martin