Climate Change Policy In The Trump Administration: A Tale Of Two Cities

11/21/2016 04:24 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2017

Many environmentalists are fearful that the election of Donald Trump will set back U.S. efforts to combat climate change. That combat has many fronts, most notably motor vehicle fuel standards, building efficiency standards, and plans to materially reduce carbon emissions from the electric sector. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton argued decisive action is needed immediately to head off the most catastrophic consequences of global warming; Donald Trump used the word "hoax" to describe climate change.

Among ardent environmentalists, Trump's presidency is seen as a material adverse event for the climate. It's important to remember, however, that even in the Obama years a Clean Power Plan (CPP) only emerged in the last year of the second term. Even now, it is still under review at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Donald Trump's election likely signals the end of the CPP. As a result, for the next four years, as was the case for the last eight years, the real action on clean energy initiatives will continue to be in the same states that by and large did not vote for Donald Trump: California, New York, and New England. However, even in a few red states, notably Texas and Iowa, the fact is that clean energy - wind and solar - has become more and more competitive with fossil fuel-based electric power. In other words, both local politics and ever-improving technology will keep the renewable power business on a growth path. The fact is, neither coal nor new nuclear power can compete with wind and solar, especially when wind and solar are "firmed up" by hydroelectric or modern gas-fired power plants.

In this tableau, while the Clean Power Plan would have been a valuable and welcome federal boost to existing state and market-based clean tech development, it is not a necessary ingredient. So expect renewable energy to continue to expand, mostly from the coasts, where the combination of state willingness to embrace clean power and the incredible innovation machinery of the coasts' great universities (MIT, Stanford, et al), will be sufficient to ensure that as a country the United States will continue to make useful contributions to combating global climate change.

In one area, the Trump Administration may actually lend a hand to this unstoppable program. Mr. Trump has rightly emphasized the woeful state of the nation's infrastructure and his determination to invest in it and improve it. While his primary interest is likely to be in roads, bridges, and airports, it is likely that some of the improvements in the conditions for developing infrastructure will benefit electric infrastructure. The fact is, the nation's electric infrastructure is old and needs renovating, setting the stage for clean energy transmission. Even as red a state as Texas has invested billions in clean energy transmission to bring that renewable power in huge quantities into the bulk power markets. There is now so much wind in Texas that electric energy prices sometimes go to zero because, after all, wind is a free good, while gas and coal - while relatively cheap these days - still cost something.

So the map of clean power development will look a lot like the 2016 electoral college map: it's a tale of two cities, a blue one on the coasts, a red one on the inside. The blue coastal states will move ahead and develop a 21st century power system, and invite the red mid-continent states to make coal great again.