Elon Musk is up against a starkly different agenda, but the energy transition he invigorated can’t be stopped.
What will Donald Trump actually do?
It’s a question many Americans are asking themselves now that the U.S. has wrapped up one of its least policy-specific elections ever. The president-elect has offered only the loosest of legislative prescriptions, including whatever plans he may have for the energy industry.
The mystery hangs over turbine manufacturers like Vestas Wind Systems, which fell 12 percent since the election, and coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corp., which soared 73 percent. In his only major energy speech, Trump, 70, said he would rescind “job-destroying” environmental regulations within 100 days of taking office and revive U.S. coal. It’s terrible news for efforts to slow the pace of climate change, but the impact on the renewable energy revolution may be limited. Here’s what it could mean for America’s clean-energy darling, Tesla Motors Inc.:
1. Solar and wind subsidies are probably safe
Tesla is, first and foremost, an electric car company. But on Nov. 17 shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. The acquisition would make Tesla the biggest U.S. rooftop solar installer and the first major manufacturer to integrate solar panels with battery backup to extend power into the night.
The swift spread of rooftop solar in the U.S. has been made possible by two government policies. First, most utilities are required to credit homeowners for the excess power they send back to the grid. Those requirements are state-level and shouldn’t be affected by Trump. Second is the 30 percent federal tax credit to offset the cost of installations. The credits were first signed into law under Republican President George W. Bush in 2005 and extended by a Republican Congress late last year. Given their broad support, the subsidies are unlikely to be repealed.
2. Even without incentives, renewables will get cheaper
Solar panel prices have dropped, on average, more than 15 percent a year since 2013. On a utility scale, solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired grid electricity across most of the U.S., after subsidies. Even if the incentives were suddenly removed next year—an improbable and economically destructive scenario—the industry would eventually recover as prices continue to fall.
Incentives are designed to make superior new technologies initially affordable, but once those technologies take off, economies of scale take over.