Blowing hot air

Illustration by Brandon Celi

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has a storied history of denouncing people and things he disagrees with as “disgusting,” including Rosie O’Donnell, John Kasich’s eating habits and women using breast pumps. Also on that list? Wind turbines.

He fought (and lost) a high-profile battle against an offshore wind project in Scotland that would have impacted a golf course he was building, pushing the case all the way to the Scottish Supreme Court. Along the way he called wind energy a waste of money, ugly, bad for human health and killer of birds, among other things.


But a funny thing happened during a televised town hall in Iowa last November. Patricia Scalabrini, whose husband is employed at a local wind turbine factory, asked Trump if he supports subsidies for the industry. After hemming and hawing, he seemed to come out in favour of continued subsidies – even marvelling at the technological innovation involved.

Trump’s contortions on clean energy mirror those facing Republicans across the country these days. The cost of electricity production for wind power has dropped 61 per cent in the past six years, while solar costs fell a whopping 82 per cent.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance calculates that renewable energy investment in the U.S. rose 17 per cent to $44 billion (U.S.) in 2015, accounting for more than two-thirds of all new electric generation capacity added to the grid last year. Much of this demand is being driven by big corporations like General Motors and Google and other non-utility customers who collectively signed 2,074 megawatts of power purchasing agreements in 2015.

The primary reason for shifting Republican views on clean energy has to do with jobs. Many of the estimated 296,000 clean energy jobs are located in Republican-controlled states and congressional districts, changing the calculus for conservative lawmakers who have long railed against wasteful clean energy spending. The ten congressional districts producing the most wind energy, for example, are represented by Republicans in Congress. Lawmakers hailing from wind-producing states like Iowa and Texas were integral to the extension of the production and investment tax credits by Congress in December.

Longtime Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad has been an aggressive champion of wind energy in the state, along with senior Senator Chuck Grassley. “We’ve seen the economic success story behind renewables up close and personal,” said Grassley in an April statement. That same month the Republican-dominated state legislature in Nebraska passed a sweeping bill to ease in-state wind development.

There’s also the widespread popularity of clean energy among the U.S. population at large. Republican philanthropist and clean energy advocate Jay Faison commissioned a nationwide poll last September that found 84 per cent of registered voters, including 72 per cent of Republicans, favoured “accelerat[ing] the development and use of clean energy in the United States.” Another poll released last month found 85 per cent support among Texas voters.

In states where Republican opposition has stunted progress on clean energy, unlikely coalitions of tea party activists and environmentalists are forming to take their arguments to the people through referendums and pressure campaigns. Opposition to the expansion of solar power in Georgia and Florida led to the creation of the Green Tea Coalition, conservative activists pushing for energy freedom through decentralized electricity generation. Barry Goldwater, Jr., son of the conservative icon, has led a similar push in Arizona by condemning the power of utility monopolies.

Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, in part, through the return of good-paying manufacturing jobs to the country’s heartland.

Patricia Scalabrini knows where to find them.

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