On the face of it, a Donald Trump presidency would not be good for the renewable energy industry.
The infamously fact-averse Republican nominee has called climate change a “hoax” invented “by the Chinese.” He has pledged to revive the coal industry, dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and renege on commitments to the historic climate accord reached in Paris last year. He has complained that wind turbines are “killing all of the eagles,” and says solar power is “not working so good,” in part because it’s “very, very expensive.”
Yet SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive says he doesn’t fear the prospect of a Trump victory in November.
“It may slow down the advancement of our goal to accelerate clean energy,” Rive, whose company is the largest solar installer in the country, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, one party may champion solar more than the other.”
But away from the spotlight of a bitter election, the partisan divide disappears, he said.
“It’s not that way when you speak to voters, Democratic or Republican,” Rive said. “They are all very supportive.”
He may be right. Renewable energy enjoys broad public support. A majority of Trump voters believe that global warming exists and is caused by humans, according a poll released in May. More than half of homeowners listed solar as the energy source most important to the country, followed by wind power and natural gas, according to a survey of 1,400 homeowners conducted last year by the polling firm Zogby Analytics. (The results should be taken with a grain of salt ― SolarCity paid for the poll ― but the success of solar in traditionally Republican terrain makes the poll worth noting.)
Even Barry Goldwater Jr. ― son of the conservative icon and former Republican presidential nominee to whom Trump is sometimes compared ― has for the past three years waged an unlikely fight against utility companies in support of solar energy.
Perhaps more importantly, the industry is in a good position. Incentives for clean energy are expected to continue regardless of who ends up in the White House, as a budget deal reached last December extended a solar investment tax credit until the end of 2021 ― a 30 percent credit that helps the industry compete against the heavily subsidized oil and gas sectors. Meanwhile, the price of solar installations has plummeted 63 percent since 2011, and it’s expected to keep getting cheaper.
Rooftop solar grew by more than 1,000 percent since 2010, at one point propelling stocks like SolarCity to $86 per share. Since, then growth has slowed. Until Congress extended the investment tax credit, many in the industry expected demand for solar to slump by 71 percent next year. But now, it could instead climb by 5.5 percent, according to Bloomberg.
And the sun should keep shining on solar ― in part because of the dark horizon for coal.
The coal industry has imploded, battered by competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. In just the past year, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal all went bankrupt. The cost of energy from a new coal-fired power plant climbed to north of $50 per megawatt-hour, according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. By contrast, the price of solar hit a new low of $29.1 per megawatt-hour at a new plant slated to come online in Chile in 2020. For natural gas, which likely topped coal last year as the United States’ biggest source of electricity, that figure averages out to about $53 per MWh.
Rive isn’t alone in his assessment. Others in the industry are trying to stay positive about the possibility of a Trump presidency.
“The Clinton campaign has put forward detailed proposals that will promote the growth of solar in the U.S.,” Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs at the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association, told HuffPost in a statement. “The Trump campaign has been less specific regarding solar development.”
“A Trump presidency would probably not be the worst disaster, given that support is grandfathered in at the federal level,” said Jenny Chase, head of global solar analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Chase says the fight has moved instead to the states, where solar companies navigate a patchwork of net metering policies ― rules that allow households or businesses with solar panels to sell excess electricity back to the grid during the day.
Trump could damage renewable energy development on the state level. He has threatened to discard President Barack Obama’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which includes a $4 billion fund to provide state incentives to develop clean energy. A Trump presidency could also embolden utility companies already fighting back against state-level solar incentives.
“Assuming Trump follows through on the sort of policy statements he’s put out on energy, such as undoing the Obama administration’s climate rules and getting rid of the Clean Power Plan, that would definitely have an impact on solar development,” Molly Christian, a senior reporter at S&P Global Market Intelligence’s SNL Financial trade publication, told HuffPost. “It’d slow it down. It wouldn’t grow as quickly.”
The opposite may be true under Clinton, who has vowed to transform the U.S. into a “clean energy superpower.” Her ambitious climate plan, while lacking some key proposals, includes a $60 billion clean energy fund and a goal of increasing solar capacity by 700 percent by the end of the decade.
In all, Trump still represents a profound threat to the U.S. economy, which could lose about $1 trillion by 2021 if he wins, according a forecast released this week from Oxford Economics.
“Apart from the whole U.S. descending into chaos, wouldn’t all U.S. companies take a hit?” Chase, who is British, said of a Trump victory, laughing. “I don’t think it will necessarily be a solar issue.”