Facts vs. Trump: Yes, We Do Make Wind Power Here

Just the facts: Wind turbine technician is the country's fastest-growing job occupation, according the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Credit: Lance Cheung via Flickr

Governor Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Energy, is no friend of the planet. In fact, he’s a climate denier with an environmental record so bad that our colleagues at the League of Conservation Voters once put him on their Dirty Dozen list of politicians they hoped would be voted out of office. That said, even a broken clock is right twice a day. He was governor of Texas while the state became the national leader in wind power development. In particular, Governor Perry signed legislation that enabled transmission and changes to the electric markets securing Texas' current dominance in wind.

NRDC opposes Perry’s nomination unequivocally. But if he were confirmed, what influence might the governor be able to have on his future boss, who seems decidedly clueless on the benefits of wind power? In fact, much of what Trump has to say about wind power is flat out wrong. (More on that below.) Reporters should not repeat President-elect Trump’s statements on the clean power technology without pointing out that they are factually incorrect. 

To highlight how mistaken Donald Trump is on wind-power, I decided to comb through the president-elect’s most recent comments on the subject, from his November 22nd interview with the New York Times, to offer a line-by-line rebuttal. Wind power can provide the good jobs and infrastructure updates Candidate Trump promised on the campaign trail. Not only that, it can lower our electric costs, improve our public health, save unfathomable amounts of water in parts of the country plagued by drought, and of course, provide an important hedge against climate change. Let’s hope the president-elect and Governor Perry see the truth in that. If not, it’s always good to be armed with the facts.

Here are Donald Trump’s recent comments about wind power to the New York Times, accompanied by facts.

Trump: First of all, we don’t make the windmills in the United States.

Facts: As with many things, the president-elect’s got this point all wrong. Not only do we manufacture a lot of wind power components here—turbines, towers, nacelles, you name it—but U.S. scientists and engineers pioneered modern wind power. They developed the world’s first utility-scale wind turbines and wind farms using funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the state of California. Today, thanks to taxpayer-supported innovation, wind power is now a global industry, with investments totaling $110 billion in 2015.

On a more granular level, as of Q3 2016, U.S. workers, including electricians, iron workers, manufacturing workers, engineers, research scientists, truckers, and others, have developed and installed more than 75,000 megawatts of wind power in the United States. That power is provided by almost 49,000 utility-scale turbines that generate enough electricity to power 20 million average American homes.

Not only that. The U.S. wind power industry has grown fast in recent years and now employs 102,000. At more than 500 factories in 43 states, more than 21,000 Americans manufacture wind power components for both U.S. and export markets, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the leading wind power trade group. Moreover, over time, the percentage of wind power components manufactured in the United States has increased significantly. In 2006-2007, only 25 percent of components installed here were manufactured here. In 2015, that number reached “roughly 60 percent,” according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They find that the percent of U.S. wind power components installed in 2015 that were manufactured here ranges between 50 and more than 85 percent, depending on the type of component.

Trump: They’re made in Germany and Japan.

Facts: Germany and Japan manufacture only a small fraction of wind power components used in the United States, with Germany supplying 4 percent and Japan supplying just 2 percent in 2015. Those percentages compare favorably to German and Japanese imports to the U.S. as a whole. In 2015, Germany supplied 5.24 percent of all US imports, while Japan was responsible for 5.99 percent.

Trump: They’re made out of massive amounts of steel, which goes into the atmosphere, whether it’s in our country or not, it goes into the atmosphere.

Facts: Most turbine towers are constructed of steel. Trump is right about that. However, new designs under development include towers that use significantly less steel.

Whether steel goes into the atmosphere depends on how literally you take that question. If Trump means that manufacturing steel turbine towers contributes to climate change, then, to some small degree, he is right. However, wind power’s lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant compared to those of both coal and natural gas: Wind power produces 23 grams of carbon equivalents per kilowatt hour, compared to 523g/kWh for natural gas and 1,205g/kWh for coal power.

If you’re wondering here about Trump’s suggestion, garbled as it may be, that wind power is polluting and therefore bad, now’s a good time to clarify. If Trump were worried about pollution, he wouldn’t propose eliminating and/or weakening a host of crucial environmental regulations, as he is now. He wouldn’t call climate change a “hoax.” And he wouldn’t have nominated a slew of pro-pollution captains of industry and oil and gas industry flunkies to run federal agencies designed to protect the public’s health and our environment.

Trump: The windmills kill birds…

Facts: Trumps concern for birds is touching, but tall buildings and the fossil fuel industry kill birds, and he doesn’t express concerns about them. Climate change represents the single largest threat to bird populations. That’s why groups such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation support responsibly sited wind power. Scientists, wind power developers, and others are working together to develop better ways to prevent bird deaths from wind power development. We need to work to minimize the impacts of all forms of energy, and the fact is that the wind industry works more closely with environmental groups to address these impacts than anyone in the fossil fuel industry.

Trump: …and the windmills need massive subsidies. In other words, we’re subsidizing windmills all over this country. I mean, for the most part they don’t work. I don’t think they work at all without subsidy, and that bothers me…

Facts: As federal energy subsidies go, wind power’s are small potatoes. The major wind power incentive is the federal Production Tax Credit. It peaked at 2.3 cents per kWh last year. Beginning this month, the PTC incentive will decrease by 20 percent a year, through the end of 2019, when it will expire. (Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Energy calculates the public health benefits of wind power to be worth almost that: as much as 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour. These benefits result from reductions in only three of the many types of pollutants produced during conventional electricity generation—sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter 2.5. Were other pollutants, such as mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, included in these calculations, the public health benefits would be even higher.)

In contrast to wind power, fossil fuels and nuclear power have been huge recipients of taxpayer largesse: Since 1947, fossil fuels have received 65 percent of all federal energy incentives, while nuclear power has gotten 21 percent, for a combined total of approximately 86 percent, according to calculations by the American Wind Energy Association. Wind power, which already supplies 5.2 percent of US electricity, up from only 0.56 percent in 2006, has received only 2.8 percent of these subsidies. (Other renewables received approximately 12 percent.) Many of these fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies are written into the federal tax code and don’t sunset as the renewable energy provisions do.

In addition, these incentives have contributed to the precipitous drop in the price of wind power over the last six years. It has dropped by two-thirds, making it the lowest-cost type of electricity in some regions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind power is selling for approximately $20/mWh in the central part of the country, lower than the cost of electricity generated by natural gas and coal. Indeed, says Bill Fehrmann, President and CEO of the Midwestern utility MidAmerican Energy, “Wind energy helps us keep prices stable and more affordable for customers.”

Trump: …and they kill all the birds.

Facts: See above.

Trump: You go to a windmill, you know in California they have the, what is it? The golden eagle? And they’re like, if you shoot a golden eagle, they go to jail for five years and yet they kill them by, they actually have to get permits that they’re only allowed to kill 30 or something in one year.

Facts: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants so-called incidental take permits that attempt to limit the number of bald and golden eagles that can be killed, harmed, or harassed not only by wind power projects but by all other commercial activities. Historically, eagle permits have also been issued for airport operations, road construction projects, residential and commercial building construction, and resource recovery. The FWS’s revised rules, issued on December 14, 2016, provide additional clarity conservation and mitigation measures designed to lower human impacts on eagle populations.

Trumps: The windmills are devastating to the bird population, O.K.

Facts: See above.

Trump: With that being said, there’s a place for them. But they do need subsidy. So, if I talk negatively. I’ve been saying the same thing for years about you know, the wind industry. I wouldn’t want to subsidize it. Some environmentalists agree with me very much because of all of the things I just said, including the birds, and some don’t.

Facts: See above. NRDC and all the environmentalists we know want more wind and more protection for birds. That’s why we’ve been fighting for “smart from the start” siting and better permits that get carefully sited renewables built faster.

Trump: But it’s hard to explain. I don’t care about anything having to do with anything having to do with anything other than the country.

Facts: Your guess about the meaning of this last statement is as good as mine. But if Trump’s saying he cares about our country, then we hope he’ll learn more about wind power and support it for the many benefits it has to offer: jobs, cleaner air, cheaper energy, and a safer climate for us and our birds.