Will Donald Trump Blow Warren Buffett’s Clean-Energy Bet Off Course?

Source: By Stephen Gandel and Katie Fehrenbacher, Fortune • Posted: Monday, January 9, 2017

Berkshire Hathaway is one of the biggest players in wind power, but the president-elect may strip away some of the company’s financial advantages.

Bill Nosbisch has four cats, two horses, a dog, and way too many corny jokes. “Why can’t the tissue stop dancing?” he asks while waiting for food at his wife’s restaurant—the Chuckwagon in Adair, Iowa, which was just ranked the No. 1 burger joint in the state by the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s got a little boogie in it.” That one has made billionaire Warren Buffett laugh.

Nosbisch lives outside Adair, about halfway between Des Moines and Omaha. The town, with just under 800 people, is too crowded for him; he lives on eight acres of Iowa farmland, though he’s not a farmer in the traditional sense. Eight years ago, Nosbisch was out of work. His job, running the Des Moines printing plant for newspaper giant Dow Jones, was swept away by the winds of change.

Shortly after he lost his job, a former colleague asked Nosbisch if he would be interested in running a wind farm. Nosbisch asked where. The colleague answered, “All around you.” Within a year the landscape outside Nosbisch’s front door had sprouted a forest of wind turbines, and Nosbisch had a new career as a wind farmer and a new employer—Berkshire Hathaway.

These days Nosbisch, now the manager for engineering and asset management in wind generation at MidAmerican Energy, Berkshire’s Iowa utility, hops in his car for an eight-minute daily commute (he has never hit traffic). In the early morning light the 148-foot blades of many of the dozens of turbines that he passes on the way to work are already turning above him.


Ryan Donnell for Fortune

His office sits inside a structure that looks like a construction-site trailer. From there, Nosbisch can monitor the output of the area’s three wind farms, Eclipse, Adair, and Morning Light, and check in on other operators. If there is a problem, it’s a short drive to one of 170 turbines on the site. And then a 15-minute climb up 263 rungs to the top to see what repairs need to be made. Far below him is a green and honey-colored landscape that meets a usually blue sky (engineers are not allowed to climb the turbines in bad weather). Around him are the other winged machines that are now his flock. He still marvels at the view, every time.

Renewable energy is on the rise in America. Most of the buzz, at least among consumers, has been about solar, in rooftop panel form and, more recently, in Silicon Valley dreamer Elon Musk’s plan to make solar shingles. But in Iowa you literally see clean energy on the horizon. Where silos used to top the landscape, they are now towered over by wind turbines.

What isn’t well known, in Iowa or elsewhere, is that one of the biggest winds at green energy’s back is coming from the world’s second-richest man. Buffett and his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway brk-b , have spent more than $17 billion on renewable energy since 2004. Two years ago at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual power conference Buffett pledged to nearly double that. This year Berkshire is on track to spend almost $1 billion on its Iowa wind facilities alone—though Buffett admits he himself has never done more than drive past a wind farm. In an interview in November, Buffett told Fortune, “On the subject of hamburgers, I am an expert. Wind, I know less.”

Many Berkshire loyalists could say the same about the company’s renewable-energy efforts. Few Wall Street analysts have focused on it, even though energy accounted for 16% of the company’s operating income in 2015, up from 11% in 2013. The biggest generator of that income is PacificCorp, Berkshire’s West Coast utility. But the fastest-growing portion of Berkshire’s energy business is MidAmerican, which generated $524 million in operating income in the first nine months of 2016, up $102 million from the same period a year ago. A third of that came from wind.

President-elect Trump has called global warming a hoax and has said he doesn’t want to subsidize wind power. But Berkshire Hathaway is fully committed to remaking the landscape.

As Berkshire’s wind capacity has grown, so has the profile of Greg Abel, CEO of the company’s energy division, adding a wrinkle to one of the biggest succession mysteries in corporate America. In 2015, Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger, Buffett’s longtime partner, said that either Abel, 54, or a colleague, executive Ajit Jain, would make a worthy replacement for Buffett. And Abel is certainly being paid to stay. In 2015, he earned $1 million in salary, but also collected an $11.5 million performance bonus, and a one-time, $28 million payment from a long-term compensation plan.

Environmentalists don’t typically view Buffett as a climate hero. His utilities have been criticized for relying on coal, and at Berkshire’s annual meeting last May he had to fend off a shareholder effort related to climate change. (A story on conservative website Daily Caller was headlined “Warren Buffett Tells Greenie Crusaders to Buzz Off.”)

Nevertheless, before long, Berkshire Hathaway—owner of everything from Dairy Queen Blizzards to Brooks running shoes to Benjamin Moore paint—will likely also be the largest producer of wind energy in America. In early 2016, Berkshire announced its largest project yet, a 2,000-megawatt wind complex in Iowa. Construction on the $3.6 billion project begins next year. When it’s done, Berkshire will have the capacity to produce 11,139 megawatts of green energy an hour, enough to power nearly eight Las Vegases or 24 Times Squares or 7.3 million homes, much of it by wind.

If Buffett’s turbines are a potentially big boon for the environment, it’s not clear they have delivered financially for Berkshire. By one analysis, Berkshire’s energy business has the lowest returns of any division of the company. “Greg [Abel] has hit the ball,” says one longtime Berkshire investor who declined to be named. “But he hasn’t knocked the cover off it.” What’s more, Berkshire’s renewable investments have largely been dependent on the infrastructure—transmission and generation grid—that has traditionally been used by utilities. That means Berkshire could find its energy investments on the wrong side of innovation.

Perhaps most important, a huge part of Berkshire’s wind-energy play is pegged to tax credits, of which it recognized $336 million in 2016. The government is set to phase those out over the next decade, and that may accelerate under President-elect Trump, who has called global warming a hoax and who has said he doesn’t want to subsidize wind power. But Berkshire Hathaway is fully committed to remaking the landscape—figuratively in energy, and literally in Iowa.

Given where he lives—in Omaha, just across the Iowa-Nebraska border—it’s not too much of a surprise that Buffett has fallen in love with wind energy. Iowa is the Saudi Arabia of wind. At the eastern edge of the Great Plains, Iowa has strong winds that sweep across its northern and western regions. The state’s chief executive, Terry Branstad—currently the longest-serving governor in the U.S., with 21 years under his belt—has been pushing wind energy, and it has paid off. About 35% of Iowa’s electricity will be generated by wind in 2016. Over 7,000 Iowans like Bill Nosbisch are employed doing jobs like maintaining wind turbines, monitoring wind-farm systems, and making wind blades. All of Berkshire utility MidAmerican’s turbines are in Iowa, and its new 2,000-megawatt facility will be the largest economic development project in the state’s history.

Along the way, power in Iowa has become among the cheapest in the nation. For one kilowatt-hour (enough to power 10 household light bulbs for one hour) in Des Moines, MidAmerican charges corporate customers just under 5¢, well below the average nationwide. The result: An increasing number of electricity-hungry companies, particularly tech firms, are opening facilities in the state. Facebook FB2.27% Google GOOGL 1.50% , and Microsoft MSFT 0.87% have all opened data centers in Iowa in the past few years. “These companies are all about sustainability,” says John Boyd, who consults with companies on corporate locations. “Wind power is a big reason they are moving to Iowa.”

Greg Abel, head of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, atop one of the company's wind turbines in western Iowa. Abel has spearheaded the company's push into wind energy. Greg Abel, head of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, atop one of the company’s wind turbines in western Iowa. Abel has spearheaded the company’s push into wind energy.Ryan Donnell for Fortune

Iowa is perhaps the most dramatic example of a nationwide trend. The amount of wind energy in the U.S. tripled between 2008 and 2013, while its average cost dropped by a third. Today 75 gigawatts are being produced by 49,000 wind turbines across the country, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The Department of Energy estimates wind could generate 10% of America’s electricity by 2020, up from about 7% by the end of 2016. And according to research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in a number of states it is now less expensive to generate electricity from wind than from either coal or natural gas.

Microsoft, which has contracts to purchase a total capacity of 500 megawatts of wind energy to power U.S. data centers, has seen costs drop steadily, says director of energy strategy Brian Janous. And analysts predict wind costs could come down even more, thanks in part to software and computing that make converting wind to electricity more efficient. The biggest cost reductions “will come from ‘soft engineering,’ like digitalization, connectivity, data, software, and automation of operations,” says Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Daniel Shurey.

That said, there may be limits to how far wind power can scale up in the U.S. Few states can rely on the ample gusts that Iowa gets, for example. It’s difficult to find open space for sprawling turbine farms in places where land is more expensive and population dense, and state tax incentives matter, too. Today there are almost no wind farms in the Southeast and very few in the Northeast.

Click image to enlarge.Warren Buffett: Daniel Acker — Bloomberg/Getty Images, Elon Musk: Hector Guerrero — AFP/Getty Images

The biggest wild card in wind’s future may be federal tax credits. A utility like Berkshire’s MidAmerican can lower its tax liability through production credits for 10 years for each project. The federal government offers a tax credit of 2.3¢ for every kilowatt-hour produced. MidAmerican’s new Iowa project alone, once finished, will generate over $29 million a year in tax credits for Berkshire. And Berkshire can use its credits for its entire company, which made $28 billion in operating income in 2015. Buffett freely admits that without the tax credit his desire to get into wind energy would have been greatly diminished.

The federal credit, first enacted in the 1990s and extended half a dozen times over the years, has helped trigger a long boom in wind energy. Conversely, its absence tends to make utilities and their investors nervous, and Congress’s tendency to reauthorize it for as little as a year at a time just aggravates that angst.

As of now, wind credits are set to begin phasing out in 2017—similar credits for solar will do the same starting in 2019—and President-elect Trump may announce plans to speed up the process. In an interview with the New York Times in November, Trump said of wind-power projects, “We’re subsidizing windmills all over this country [and] for the most part they don’t work… I wouldn’t want to subsidize it.” Trump’s closest energy advisers, like Carl Icahn and Harold Hamm (who each own oil companies), have been calling for an end to subsidies. But even the elimination of the credits could give the industry some clarity—and a chance to prove whether wind can be economical on its own.