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January 2, 2020

Opinion: Trump tilts at windmills

By Sarah Hunt

As published on January 20, in The Washington Examiner

President Trump’s feud with wind power, stemming from his opposition to a wind project near his Scotland golf course, continues to shape his perspective on renewable energy. In his recent speech to Turning Point USA students in Florida, his statements opposing wind energy left even conservatives (like us) scratching their heads to find the logic in his arguments.

Starting with an appeal to patriotism, Trump declared that “a windmill will kill many bald eagles” and asked why that was acceptable when, if a civilian killed a bald eagle, it is a felony. This is an outdated, though not unreasonable concern. The mortality rate of birds colliding with the turbine arms was a big concern with wind power in the past. The same wind streams that generate the most potential wind energy are frequently used as migratory routes by many bird species.

Thanks to technological improvements over the last decade and better site placements coordinated with ornithologists, bird fatalities from wind turbines have dropped significantly. Today, roughly 100 eagles per year are killed by wind turbines in the United States, and not all are bald eagles. In Alameda County, California, for example, there are about 7,000 windmills. In 2013, only 14 eagles were killed by these turbines. These numbers could improve, but the mortalities are nowhere near what the president claimed.

Leaving Trump’s conservationist concern for eagle fatalities behind us, the real data about whether or not wind energy is good for the economy and the global environment varies drastically from what he claimed in his speech.

Trump asserted that most wind turbines used in the U.S. are produced outside of the country. This is absolutely false. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, run by the Trump administration, General Electric makes about 43% of wind turbines in the U.S. GE develops and manufactures these turbines at manufacturing plants in Pensacola, Florida; New Orleans; and a research facility in Greenville, South Carolina. The next biggest producer of these turbines is Denmark, at 18%. 

Global wind turbine production is indeed topped by China, which may be the source of Trump’s confusion here. Goldwind, a Chinese company, made 7.8 gigawatts of installed wind generating capacity globally back in 2015. However, all of Goldwind’s turbines were installed in China, and the largest producer of wind energy in the U.S., GE, produces its turbines in the U.S. If Trump is seeking American energy dominance, clean energy dominance must be part of that agenda to maintain global competitiveness. Ceding global leadership in any area of energy to China is a move that is neither a conservative nor wise.

Wind energy production is doing great things at home to benefit the economy, beyond the fantastic GE manufacturing jobs in the heart of America’s southeastern Trump country. Wind represents American-made products generating energy for American consumption. The wind industry sustains over 100,000 jobs in the U.S. Wind energy poured about $20 billion into the economy in 2017. In 2018, wind saw a growth of 8% in the U.S.

Projections show the wind energy industry supporting 600,000 U.S. jobs by 2050 if the industry continues to grow as it does at present, which makes it one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the U.S. right now. Regardless of one’s personal political leanings on energy issues, this industry has a net positive effect on the economy. Trump should embrace this next-generation American industry if he wants us to dominate global energy.

Trump claims wind energy is expensive. While all energy creation has a cost, wind energy is actually one of the cheapest energy options available today. According to the Department of Energy, “Land-based utility-scale wind is one of the lowest priced energy sources today.” Wind energy costs between 2 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour and comes with the certainty of inexhaustibility, meaning the industry will remain stable, and so will prices for consumers.

Wind is steady, it’s all American made, and it’s affordable.

And finally, “fumes.” Trump claims that the manufacturing of wind turbines means the release of “tremendous fumes and gases … spewing into the atmosphere.” While it is heartening to hear Trump express concern about carbon and other emissions, the wind industry is hardly close to a major culprit. The globe is today emitting four times the amount of carbon emissions than it was in the 1950s. If there’s a solution to this problem, it must be a global solution, an all-of-the-above energy solution. Clamping down on one largely domestic industry providing low-emissions electricity will not help reduce air pollution.

Facing a future where climate change is a certainty, not a probability, means leaning into evolving market solutions for all-of-the-above, all-American energy sources — with wind being one of our most affordable, most prodigious job-creating options. Betting against wind as an affordable, cleaner source of energy is, so to speak, “tilting against windmills.”

Benji Backer (@BenjiBacker) is president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition. Sarah Hunt (@sarahehunt01) is co-founder and CEO of the Rainey Center.

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