U.S. wind, solar power tout rural jobs as Trump pushes coal

The renewable-energy industry has a message for the Trump administration about bringing energy jobs to rural communities: get out of the coal mines and look to the sky.

U.S. wind-farm developers and suppliers had more than 100,000 workers at the end of the year and the solar industry had more than double that, and they’re a significant source of employment in many of the rural red states that supported Donald Trump’s campaign. That compares to 65,971 coal mining jobs at the start of last year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Leaders of the solar and wind industries say the rural areas that missed out on economic growth under President Barack Obama are benefiting from the expansion of clean energy. And that growth isn’t driving the collapse of coal mining, according to Abigail Hopper, the recently hired chief executive officer of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“I reject the idea that there has to be a winner and a loser,” Hopper said in an interview Tuesday at the trade group’s Washington headquarters. “These are good paying, local jobs that the solar industry is creating everywhere.”

Hopper is urging the Trump administration to continue to support pro-solar policies, which helped create more than 200,000 jobs in the past decade, with more than 9,000 mostly small businesses that deliver and install panels.

“They did it for economic reasons, for consumer choice and for energy independence,” said Hopper, who joined SEIA this month after serving as director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “These are all things that conservatives support.”

That support hasn’t been a boon for solar investors. The Bloomberg Global Large Solar Energy index has dropped almost 13 percent since Trump was elected, compared with a 6.7 percent gain in the broader S&P 500 index.

The top 10 congressional districts for wind energy are all in Republican-dominated red states such as Iowa and Texas, according to American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan.

Hiring Workers

“We’re hiring workers in the rust belt,” Kiernan said in an interview. “We’re helping families keep farms they’ve held for generations. The lifeblood of our industry is in rural America.”

As a more fossil-fuel friendly Trump administration takes shape, both executives want the new president to maintain two key federal tax credits that received extensions from the Republican-controlled Congress at the end of 2015. While Trump criticized wind turbines as bird killers during the campaign, his pick for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, helped his state become the largest producer of wind power.

Wind developers expect to attract $60 billion in private investment under existing tax credits over the next few years as installations ramp up, and will double the power sent to the grid to about 10 percent, from about 5 percent today.

That, and the built-in sunset provisions that came with the tax-credit extensions, may help preserve the policies as Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress consider changes to the tax system.

“Everyone we talk to says ‘we already adjudicated that in 2015’,” said Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs at SEIA. He said the group would be willing to give up the investment tax credit if the fossil industries gave up their financial incentives too. “If by ’21 everyone is out of the pool, then fine.”

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