While Perry Betrays His Clean Power Past, Cities Look to the Future

The energy secretary is willfully ignoring the renewables revolution that’s taking place all around him.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel committed to powering city buildings with renewable energy

Brooke Collins/Chicago Mayor's Office

When he was governor of Texas, Rick Perry, our nation’s current secretary of energy, openly expressed his love for fossil fuels. Given that Texas is the largest oil-producing state in the country—and that Perry’s political party has demonstrably close ties to the oil, gas, and coal industries—that position makes a certain amount of sense.

But for all his petrochemical PDA, Perry always billed himself as an “all-of-the-above” kind of guy when it came to energy. He liked pointing out, for instance, that Texas was also the nation’s leader in wind power. And Perry seemed genuinely well liked by the state’s renewables sector, which took the governor at his word when he spoke of “the Texas way” of producing energy: inclusive, cooperative, open-minded, and renewables-friendly.

But now that he’s in charge of our nation’s energy policy, some are wondering if he’s forgotten how much he once admired renewables—and how important he thought they were to his home state’s energy diet.

In a recent memo to his chief of staff, Perry directed members of his own agency to launch an internal audit of any “regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, [that] are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.” Later in the memo, he credited “an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric” with keeping our grid “stable, reliable, and resilient.”

Note what’s not on that list of reliable energy resources: wind and solar power. Their absence goes from notable to significant when one considers how vigorously the Trump administration has been championing fossil fuels at the expense of renewables—in this most recent case, by implying that investment in wind and solar is somehow leading to the “premature” shuttering of baseload power plants, aka coal-burning plants (and, to a lesser extent, nuclear). In truth, cheap and abundant natural gas has been laying the coal industry low for years.

But the Trump administration would prefer a different scapegoat. So naturally it’s sending Rick Perry to talk smack about wind and solar—and, more insidiously, to lay the groundwork for removing tax breaks and subsidies for those industries. Perhaps this is to be expected from the cabinet of a president whose reflexive dislike of wind power is as selfish as it is senseless. (Wind turbines threaten to ruin the aesthetics of his golf courses. Egads!)

Here’s the thing, though. Trump and Perry can cast aspersions on renewables all they want, and go on publicly pretending that investment in wind and solar threaten grid resilience and are all that's standing in the way of that Great American Coal Renaissance the president has foolishly been promising. But aside from maybe Mitch McConnell, nobody’s buying it.

Just check the headlines. At about the same time that Perry’s deputy secretary was checking that memo draft for typos, two more major American cities were announcing plans to obtain 100 percent of their energy from renewables by a fixed point in the near future. Two weeks ago, Chicago and Portland, Oregon, became the latest cities to join an ever-growing list of municipalities pledging to ditch fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar, and geothermal over the next few decades.

And even though they acknowledge the many environmental, health, and climate benefits that come from making such a switch, the leaders of these cities aren’t just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’ve looked at the projections. They’ve done the math. And they’ve ultimately concluded what any rational, civic-minded numbers-cruncher would have to conclude: that so-called “grid parity”—the point at which wind and solar become as cheap to produce as fossil fuel–based energy—is coming to the United States, and soon. In some parts of the country, it's already here.

Renewables have reached grid parity in more than 30 nations, according to the World Economic Forum. In China—a country whose fate is inextricably tied to its energy and environmental policy, and one that has embraced renewables accordingly—solar capacity grew by 80 percent last year. Between now and 2020, the Chinese government plans to invest at least $360 billion in solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear power, with the goal of getting half of its electricity from these sources.

Rick Perry may be known for his forgetfulness, but I don’t think he’s actually forgotten why it makes sense to continue investing in wind and solar—and to continue helping them on their path to achieving grid parity here. In this case, his memory lapse is a pose. Perry’s just doing the rhetorical bidding of coal and oil companies that are desperate to rescue their preferred, if increasingly endangered, narrative: that renewables are too expensive and too unreliable to fuel the grid and therefore don’t deserve any tax breaks or subsidies.

China doesn’t believe it. The European Union doesn't believe it. Chicago, Portland, Boulder, and Moab, Utah, don’t believe it. I highly doubt that even Rick Perry believes it. 


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