Branstad backs Iowa wind energy, defends Trump on coal

Source: By Kathie Obradovich, Des Moines Register • Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2017

As the nation waits for President Donald Trump to dismantle clean-power regulations, Gov. Terry Branstad chose to start his week by highlighting the importance to Iowa of wind energy.

“Perhaps the most important impact wind has had on our state are the high-quality, good-paying jobs that are helping grow family incomes across this state. But wind has also helped us reduce our dependency on coal and other non-renewable resources,” Branstad said Monday during his weekly news conference.

Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds pointed to a report released by the American Wind Energy Association that shows significant growth expected in investment and jobs.

The report by Navigant Consulting shows there could be an additional $9 billion in economic activity on top of the existing $11.9 billion by 2020.  Jobs directly related to wind energy could grow from roughly 9,000 to 11,500 in the same period. Jobs indirectly related to wind could add another 5,800 jobs.

“Companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft and many others have expressed how critical renewable energy has been to their decision to locate here in Iowa,” Reynolds said.

But Branstad refuses to criticize President Trump’s planned executive order to eliminate the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.  The order, aimed at helping the coal industry, would do away with a proposed 2015 rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s a totally different issue” than expanding renewable energy, Branstad said. “The war on coal is over, I agree with that, but the commitment to renewable energy continues” from the Trump administration.


Branstad pointed to commitments from Trump to continue the Renewable Fuel Standard and the existing wind energy tax credit, which is phasing out over five years.

“The commitment to renewable energy continues, and we’re going to continue to build on the tremendous progress and success we’ve made with renewable energy, working with this administration. And (Energy Secretary) Rick Perry and Mr. (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt and the other key people understand how important this is,” Branstad said.

The governor is relying on the word of an administration not known for telling the truth. But Trump has been taking steps toward keeping his campaign promises, including his pledge to bring back coal-industry jobs.

If Trump succeeds in revitalizing coal, the cost may not be just to the environment. Iowa companies benefit from having a growing market for the wind turbines they manufacture.  Presumably, a newly competitive coal industry could burn up some of the market share for wind and natural gas.

That could make a difference, says John Boorman of the Iowa Wind Energy Association.  However, wind industry experts also say it will be more difficult than signing an executive order for Trump to dismantle the air-quality regulations in the Clean Energy Act enacted under President George W. Bush. It could take years and congressional approval to roll back emissions limits.

Meanwhile, wind energy is cheaper than coal, even without subsidies, according to the American Wind Energy Association.  Wind can withstand political shifts, experts have told the Register.

But what happens if, as national economists and others have predicted, removing regulatory barriers isn’t enough to bring back coal jobs? Automation and market forces are what stand in the way of miners, not just Obama-era regulation.

Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, put it this way in an op-ed in the New York Times in November: “For Mr. Trump to improve coal’s fate would require enormous market intervention like direct mandates to consume coal or significant tax breaks to coal’s benefit. These are the exact types of interventions that conflict with decades of Republican orthodoxy supporting competitive markets.”

Trump isn’t known for following Republican orthodoxy, and GOP members in Congress have been willing to stretch their principles to continue subsidizing fossil fuel industries. In a political landscape where the words “climate change” are being scrubbed from federal websites, anything could happen. Branstad deserves kudos for his role in helping to make Iowa a leader in renewable energy.  It’s good for the state and for the planet.  But to pretend a shift in national policy to the advantage of dirty fossil fuels can’t possibly smudge Iowa’s renewable industry seems like smoggy thinking.