As Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency next week, it is appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the remarkable progress that the renewable energy sector has made, even in just the past year, as well as what opportunities may lie in the future. 2016 marked the inevitable emergence of clean energy as a major player in the nation’s energy market, evidenced by stunning growth and advances in technology, coupled with significant – and ongoing – drops in the cost of production.
As we have cited in numerous blogs over the years, much of this tremendous growth is attributable to policies that encourage, drive and accelerate renewable energy development – such as production and investment tax credits, state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), just to name a few.
With the uncertainty that comes with the ascension of any new administration, it is imperative for renewable energy advocates to defend these core, enabling policies at all levels, and to highlight the economic and energy security benefits they provide.
Despite the uncertainty, we also believe that with a new tenant in the White House, those in the renewable energy sector have a great opportunity to reach out and forge win-win outcomes with the new administration.
For example, with a new president who strongly voiced his support for ethanol and the RFS during his election campaign, the transition in federal government leadership could provide a good opportunity for ethanol interests and their allies in the auto industry to renew their push for high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels to help meet efficiency standards for cars and light trucks over the next decade. This has already shown progress with the president-elect’s choice for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, meeting with senators from major ethanol states and affirming his support to follow the RFS as Congress directed through the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.
A glaring omission from the draft Technical Assessment Report (TAR) – a federal-state, 1,200-plus page “report card” issued in 2016 on the progress auto manufacturers are making in their pursuit of fuel economy standards – is any recognition or consideration of fuel quality and higher-octane pathways that are viable, near-term solution for meeting the very aggressive fuel economy and emission targets for model years 2022-2025 cars and light trucks.
Despite the draft TAR being a combined effort by EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the California Air Resource Board, the failure to even mention high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels is a surprise, given that DOE’s national laboratories have been reporting extensively over the past two years that major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from HOLC fuels – specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range – coupled with higher-compression engines. They represent an option that increases the amount of ethanol that can be blended into the nation’s fuel supply and, in turn, generate jobs and boost local economies, particularly in rural areas where they are most needed – and where the new president drew overwhelming support in the election.
Another critical issue to the renewable energy sector – and more specifically to rural America – that could be addressed by the new administration is achieving the full potential of sustainably managed and harvested biomass for bioenergy solutions. Unfortunately, there are regulatory roadblocks and a morass of varying definitions of biomass within federal law and regulations that create a massive uncertainty that impedes the optimal development of woody biomass as a strong source of sustainable energy.
Waste from timber harvests, pre-commercial thinnings, or wildfire fuel reduction treatments can be used as a substantial source of renewable energy and improve the overall health of our forests. The harmonious treatment of biomass in federal statutes – as well as expanding the definition to include biomass from federal lands – can promote innovation in low-carbon fuels, generate greater production and create economies of scale. Increasing the supply of biomass will promote further investment to encourage the development of more renewable energy, particularly cellulosic biofuel.
Renewable energy advocates would do well to press the incoming administration to address these and similar issues that the president-elect has vowed to resolve. Impress upon our new policy makers that more than 400,000 people work in the renewable energy sector, with many living in rural areas. Remind them that the economic benefits of renewable energy not only better the lives of farmers, ranchers and forestland owners, they also help boost local tax revenues that allow rural counties to renovate roads, build schools and update infrastructure, while simultaneously paying down our national debt.
Furthermore, renewable energy interests would do well to encourage the new administration to recognize the wide, positive impact renewable energy development has made on rural America, a constituency that proved important in this past election, and which will continue to play a major role in changing and expanding our clean energy resources.