Energy source loses prime spot in Trump’s Washington
Industry girds for grid study amid presidential insults
Three days after Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed his staff to find ways to give a boost to coal and nuclear power, the rival wind industry kicked its lobbying response into action.
The American Wind Energy Association would tap allies in Congress willing to weigh in with Perry and buy advertisements on “news channels closely followed by the Trump administration,” according to a memo its leader sent to board members. During the Obama administration it had touted its role in addressing climate change, but now it would emphasize an economic message, something sure to resonate with President Donald Trump.
"The wind industry drives over 100,000 American jobs, more than coal, nuclear, or hydropower electricity generation," Chief Executive Officer Tom Kiernan wrote in the eight-page memo on April 17. The memo was provided to Bloomberg News by a competing lobbyist and confirmed by AWEA.
Once a darling of federal policy makers during the tenure of President Barack Obama, wind energy has been buffeted under Trump, who frequently complains that wind turbines kill eagles and aren’t a reliable power source. In the administration’s efforts to help coal miners, oil drillers and nuclear-plant operators, wind is the variable, subsidized power that is making life difficult for those so-called baseload electricity producers.
"I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factory -- as the birds fall to the ground," Trump said this month in Iowa, a state that gets more than a third of its electricity from wind power.
Kiernan has taken to fact-checking Trump’s comments on Twitter. And the group has hired Republican lobbyists this year to help it gain a foothold in a very different Washington.
Last month, AWEA hired Amy Farrell, a former official in the administration of President George W. Bush and natural gas lobbyist, as its senior vice president for government and public affairs. It also hired William Myers, Bush’s former Interior Department solicitor, as a lobbyist that same month.
The Energy Department study of the electric grid, however, poses the most tangible risk to wind power, which more than doubled in capacity during the Obama administration to more than 82,000 megawatts. A memo from Perry ordering the study posited that the reliability of the power grid was at risk, and listed factors such as regulations that could be forcing the “premature retirement of baseload power plants,” which refers to mostly coal and nuclear facilities. While Perry didn’t mention wind, he did discuss tax subsidies, which wind producers receive, and highlights a preference for on-site fuel, which wind doesn’t have.
"Political driven policies, driven primarily by a hostility to coal, threatens the reliability and the stability of the greatest electrical grid in the world," Perry said this week. "Over the last few years, grid experts have expressed concern about the erosion of critical baseload resources, specifically how it is dispatched and compensated."
Publicly the wind industry says it’s doing just fine under Trump.
Tom Vinson, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for the group, which counts subsidiaries of wind turbine makers such as Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Siemens AG on its board of directors, dismissed the memo as "old news" and said wind doesn’t face overwhelming opposition as it supports the president’s quest for "energy dominance." And it creates jobs, he added.
Perry, who had mostly praised coal, natural gas and nuclear power since becoming secretary, went out of his way to praise wind and solar this week.
"We are going to ensure that renewable energy finds its way to the grid and that the tremendous resources presented by the wind, the sun and hydro are efficiently captured and then delivered," he said.
When he was governor of Texas, Perry said in a blog post this week, that state took a lead in pursuing wind development, and it now stands as the top wind producing state in the U.S.
That shift in tone may, in part, represent that AWEA’s efforts are paying dividends.
Soon after the the wind association started its lobbying campaign, wind-friendly lawmakers such as Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley sent letters with pointed questions about the study. Environmental groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests about the study, and what prompted it. The industry group got in to brief administration officials on the benefits of the power source, Vinson said.
"We hope the Department of Energy will be taking this substantial body of existing research into account when they issue their study," Evan Vaughan, a spokesman for the trade group, said in an email.
And in another small victory for the industry, Trump announced Wednesday that he would nominate Richard Glick, a Democratic Senate staff member and former wind lobbyist, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
While representatives of the wind industry continue to exude confidence, "I think privately they are a little concerned," said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in the Clinton administration. "It seems as if the administration is pursuing an ideological agenda against renewables based on political animus towards the Obama administration.”
“They are anxious about some unexpected assault, but they are not quite sure what to prepare for," he added.