This week’s inaugural Presidential debate unsurprisingly lacked all but the briefest mention of the candidates’ stances on energy policy. However, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to see that the presidential candidates nominated by the four major political parties propose widely-varying policies to guide the direction of US energy development. While meaningful details as to each candidate’s policy proposals are largely absent from their published plans, let’s take a look at the information they’ve provided to get a sense of their energy priorities and proposed policies in this area, with a specific focus on their approach to renewable energy.
Relative to other candidates in the race, Hillary Clinton has provided considerable detail on her proposed renewable energy policies. She has identified two goals that she aims to achieve: 1) reaching the milestone of five hundred million installed solar panels in the US by the end of her first term as president; and 2) increasing renewable electricity generation capacity to power every home in the country within ten years of her taking office.
In order to reach these goals, Hillary Clinton has proposed a number of policies focused on increasing incentives for renewable energy development “without relying on climate deniers in Congress to pass new legislation.” Several noteworthy examples are her Clean Energy Challenge and associated Climate Action Competition, which would attempt to incentivize states and local governments to exceed federal emissions standards through grants and “other market-based incentives”, and her Public Lands and Infrastructure initiative, which proposes to expand renewable energy production on federal lands and public buildings tenfold within a decade. Clinton’s proposed energy policies also address her support for natural gas as a transition fuel (given its low carbon content relative to other fossil fuels), revitalizing coal communities impacted by the shift towards cleaner energy sources, and reforming leasing practices for federal lands.
An area that is neglected in Clinton’s official policy proposals is the contentious question of nuclear power’s future in the US. While historically somewhat inconsistent as to her stance on this issue, Clinton was recently quoted by Scientific American as supporting nuclear power given its importance in the fight against climate change, an interesting development as this puts her official policy stance at odds with many traditionally Democratic environmentalists. This support, however, aligns Clinton’s perspective more closely with those who view nuclear as an essential, carbon free energy source which will be critical in limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.
Together, Hillary Clinton’s policies promote the broad scale-up of renewable energy through continued and enhanced incentives for renewable sources, increased research and development in clean energy technologies, and infrastructure investment to prepare the electric grid for higher levels of renewable generation.
Unlike Clinton, Donald Trump has not clearly articulated his approach to renewable energy, but has instead focused on his plans to increase domestic fossil fuel production by removing barriers he claims stem from “Obama’s job-killing energy restrictions.” He is clear that he does not support renewables more than any other form of energy, and the implications from his rare comments on this issue are that he sees little value in them; in fact, the majority of Trump’s proposed energy policies are simply the elimination of programs and standards designed to protect the environment and promote the development of renewable energy. Donald Trump has criticized both solar and wind as too expensive to be viable generation technologies, and has also questioned the potential human health and wildlife effects of wind turbines, claiming at a rally in Pennsylvania last month that “the wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed.”
Donald Trump has also proposed to “cancel” the Paris climate deal, meaning he intends to revoke the commitments made by President Obama during the Conference of Parties (COP) in 2015, commitments which implicitly included significant investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Despite his adamant support for expanding domestic oil and gas drilling, activities consistently linked to significant environmental damage, Trump promises to do so “while taking proper regard for rational environmental concerns.” How he defines “rational environmental concerns”, however, is unclear.
The lack of clarity in Trump’s proposals has not gone unnoticed. Due largely to the lack of specifics, Trump’s energy policy was recently given a score of 0 out of 5 by Scientific American (by contrast, Clinton was given 5 out of 5—the only candidate to break the “2” mark in this category).
Gary Johnson and his Libertarian party provide a clear (albeit brief) ideology regarding energy and environmental regulation, yet sparse information as to the policy mechanisms by which this vision would be achieved under their leadership. Consistent with the Libertarian party’s general stance on government intervention, Gary Johnson opposes “all government control of energy pricing, allocation, and production.” Under his leadership, the United States could therefore presumably expect executive efforts to eliminate incentives for the development of renewable energy, such as the Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit recently extended by Congress. Should Johnson adhere strictly to party ideology, a simultaneous removal of the (largely tax-based) incentives provided for conventional energy development could also be expected. However, during his 2012 presidential campaign Gary Johnson indicated support for government underwriting of nuclear power plants due to the lack of private-sector interest in taking on the risk, implying that his free-market approach to energy policy may not be absolute.
Interestingly, Johnson recently indicated his support for a carbon tax—a “revenue-neutral ‘fee’ on carbon dioxide emissions”, should current regulations on greenhouse gases be repealed—only to rescind his support for such a policy shortly thereafter. Given that broad-based emissions regulations such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program are often viewed as the most direct mechanism for supporting the development of renewable energy, Johnson’s wavering stance on such programs makes his support for augmenting or replacing conventional energy sources with renewables questionable, at best.
Of the four candidates, the renewable energy policies proposed by Jill Stein of the Green Party strive for the most aggressive scaling of renewable energy. However, no readily-accessible material provided by Stein or her party discusses these aggressive targets—for example, transitioning to one hundred percent renewable energy by 2030—in much detail.
A cornerstone of Stein’s proposed reforms to the energy sector is her Green New Deal program, intended to create 20 million jobs via a transition to one hundred percent “clean renewable” energy by 2030 and investments in public transit, sustainable agriculture, conservation, and restoration of critical infrastructure. Specific policies to catalyze this plan are not laid out, but reporting from The Washington Post suggests that the combination of a carbon tax and the elimination of subsidies for the nuclear and fossil fuel industries would be fundamental parts of Stein’s energy policy platform.
So, who do I vote for?
The lack of details provided by some of the candidates makes a thorough evaluation of their proposed renewable energy policies somewhat difficult, and forces us to interpret general stances as a proxy for more concrete policies. Summarized briefly, Hillary Clinton promotes a significant increase in renewable energy generation, stimulated by a variety of incentives; Donald Trump does not provide any clear plan regarding renewable energy, although his support for conventional fuel sources, his contention that climate change is a hoax, and his claims as to the unjustifiable expense of wind and solar strongly imply a lack of support for renewables; Gary Johnson proposes that renewables fend for themselves alongside conventional energy sources; and Jill Stein advocates for the implementation of a carbon tax and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies as drivers for transitioning to renewable energy. Given these proposals, Clinton’s approach is most likely to significantly bolster the renewable energy industries; both Johnson’s and Trump’s platforms would almost certainly decimate the growth of renewables; and Stein’s plan would create significant uncertainty in the renewable energy industries given its reliance on the difficult task of creating a national carbon tax in today’s political climate.
So, as a citizen concerned especially with climate change, if you ask me: yes, I’m with her.
Ben Shapiro is Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor at PolicyMatters Journal, where this article was originally posted.