It’s become a national leader in wind-power generation, but in deep-red, oil-rich Texas, many conservatives still turn a skeptical eye toward renewable energy — despite growth numbers that dwarf virtually every other sector of the economy.
For Jeff Clark, who heads The Wind Coalition in Texas, the fact that political posturing often seems to overrule hard data can be mind-boggling. “As soon as I say, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s clean and it doesn’t contribute to climate change,’ I’ve just lost half my audience. The joke is, Would you love me more if I was dirtier?” said Mr. Clark, offering a tongue-in-cheek take on the immediate instinct of many Republicans to promote only fossil fuels.
As Republican leaders in Washington craft a once-in-a-generation tax reform bill that they say will spur unprecedented economic growth, critics contend that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House are missing a key chance to promote wind and solar power.
In recent years, the expansion in those sectors is unrivaled anywhere else in the economy.
As of the end of last year, more than 100,000 Americans were employed in the wind industry — twice the number of coal miners nationwide. The industry added 15,000 jobs last year, and 88 percent of all wind capacity added in 2016 came in states that voted for President Trump, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Wind turbine technician is now the second fastest growing trade in the nation, dropping from No. 1 last year.
Taking its spot atop the list of fastest-growing jobs was solar panel installer.
More broadly, 2 percent of all jobs added to the economy last year came in the solar power sector. Over the past four years, solar jobs are up 20 percent, and the industry added $84 billion to the country’s gross domestic product last year, according to numbers from The Solar Foundation.
By the end of this year, the industry projects having more than 286,000 solar workers across the country.
Renewable energy’s share of electricity generation has been on a steady increase, though it’s still far behind traditional fuels. Natural gas, coal and nuclear power were responsible for more than 83 percent of electricity generation last year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Renewables accounted for almost 15 percent, with 5.6 percent of that from wind, about 1 percent from solar and 6.5 percent from hydropower.
Still, renewables have become a central part of an American energy renaissance that also has produced huge upticks in oil and gas production.
But the White House and its Republican counterparts for the most part have spent the past year focused on oil and gas, along with a multipronged effort to end what they call the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”
Republican leaders who break with that trend argue that — much like Democrats who claim to be for “all of the above” but want only renewable power — most Republicans are disingenuous when they say they favor any and all forms of energy.
“Today, you’ve got people saying, ‘I’m for all of the above,’ but the way it really works is there’s some people in this town saying they’re for all of the above but what they really mean is everything from below the ground,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has emerged as the leading voice in his party for wind power and biofuels.
“And then people in this town say they’re for all of the above, but what they really mean is everything from above the ground,” he said, adding that “ideologues” in his party reflexively oppose any attempt for the government to encourage research and development of new energy sources such as wind power.
Many conservatives often argue against renewable power by stressing their opposition to tax credits or other forms of government encouragement. But the tables have turned on that front: Wind and solar tax credits are set to be phased out, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry is promoting a plan to pay utilities to keep 90-day supplies of coal on hand at their power plants. Critics see the move as a way to prop up a struggling coal sector.
Administration officials deny that they are loath to talk about renewable power. Indeed, there are strong voices in favor of wind and solar within the government.
Mr. Perry, for example, has been a vocal champion of wind power. During his time as governor of Texas, he presided over the biggest wind expansion of any state in the country.
Other officials at the Energy Department say they are actively promoting all forms of energy, including renewables.
“Overall, what the administration wants to emphasize on energy is that we are pro-energy, period, end of story. That means we’re pro-oil, pro-gas, pro-coal, pro-nuclear, pro-wind, pro-solar, pro-geothermal, pro-hydro,” said Daniel Simmons, who leads the Energy Department’s office of energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Mr. Simmons acknowledged that energy — particularly the debate over fossil fuels vs. wind and solar — often becomes embroiled in politics, but he stressed that the Energy Department doesn’t wade into those battles.
“We work on everything and don’t need to worry about those political fights,” he said.
Where those fights rage, however, is on Capitol Hill. The competing tax bills that recently passed the House and Senate — and now are being negotiated in a conference committee — contain provisions that the renewable power sector finds objectionable and potentially destructive.
Most notably, the House bill would trim wind industry tax credits by nearly half, derailing a key government policy that has facilitated the industry’s growth. The wind tax credit is scheduled to end by 2019, while solar tax credits will decline year by year before ending in 2021 for residential projects. A 10 percent tax credit for commercial solar investments will remain after 2021.
The Senate version of the tax reform package doesn’t contain provisions targeting tax credits, though renewable energy backers say other pieces of the legislation, the base erosion anti-abuse tax and alternative minimum tax, could crush investment in renewable power.
“If these provisions are retained, they will result in broad instability and uncertainty for businesses and investors across many sectors, including the clean energy sector,” reads a joint statement released by leaders in the wind, solar and other industries immediately after passage of the Senate bill.
Heading into negotiations, a group of House Democrats pushed for a meeting with Rep. Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, to discuss ways the tax bill could accelerate even greater growth in clean energy. The meeting never took place.
“We were disappointed that Chairman Brady chose not to meet” to discuss renewables, said Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat and vice chairman of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. “We can get our economy on track by first leveling the playing field between fossil fuels and renewable energy. A clean energy tax plan should not be partisan.”
Mr. Brady’s office insisted that the tax bill would encourage growth across the energy spectrum.
“The House-passed bill modernizes numerous energy provisions to strengthen free market competition, increase American energy security, and encourage investment and job creation throughout our nation’s vibrant energy sector, including in renewable energy,” said Shane McDonald, a spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee.