Rick Perry could be a greener energy secretary than you think

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaves after a meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower December 12, 2016 in New York.
Kena Betancur | AFP | Getty Images
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaves after a meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower December 12, 2016 in New York.

Environmentalists are decrying President-elect Donald Trump's selections of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and former Texas Governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy.

With Pruitt's lawsuits against the EPA and Perry's board membership of Energy Transfer Partners, these appointments are hailed as proof of Trump's intentions to unravel President Obama's priorities to de-carbonize the U.S. economy and promote a clean energy future.

Many have publicly worried that Trump's supposed anti-environmental agenda might lead him and a Republican-led Congress to seek to repeal tax credits promoting the wind and solar industries.

Those alarmed by Trump's apparent commitment to campaign promises to promote domestic energy by increasing the drilling of oil and gas, reversing the fortunes of the coal industry and canceling President Obama's Clean Power Plan, are jumping to unnecessary conclusions about the position the new administration will take regarding the clean energy industry.

If anything, Trump's selection of Perry as incoming energy secretary should be viewed as good news by clean energy industry executives.

A quick look at Perry's record as Texas Governor highlights the point. During his tenure, natural gas production climbed 50 percent, while oil production soared by 260 percent. However, the growth of the wind industry under Perry's tenure was even more dramatic, growing from only 116 megawatts of production in 2000 to over 11,000 megawatts in 2013.

If Texas was a country, it would rank as the fifth largest producer of wind power in the world, supplying Texas with approximately 10 percent of its power needs. In addition to promoting wind generation, Rick Perry's administration promoted the rapid growth of transmission infrastructure needed to carry that wind energy from its source in the Panhandle and western part of the state to major load centers.

"The dramatic growth in renewable energy during Perry's tenure was not an outgrowth of environmental zeal but rather a pragmatic approach to economic growth with energy at its core."

The dramatic growth in renewable energy during Perry's tenure was not an outgrowth of environmental zeal but rather a pragmatic approach to economic growth with energy at its core. In a speech in 2009, Governor Perry touted his approach saying, "Texas is the very picture of a state aggressively seeking its future in alternative energy, through incentives and innovation, not mandates and overreaching regulation."

Perry's speech echoes Trump's vision for how to foster economic growth by removing regulatory barriers to domestic energy production. That focus – and not any deliberate attempt to harm the environment ¬– appears to be Trump's motive in his choice of Perry and Pruitt to head the Department of Energy and EPA, respectively.

Perry's pick to lead the Department of Energy appears to underscore Trump's commitment to use energy as the cornerstone of his pro-growth agenda. From that perspective, continued support for renewable energy and the tax incentives that encourage its growth, fits well within that pro-growth agenda.

The federal investment tax credit, for example, has helped annual solar installation grow by 1,600 percent since 2006. And the fact that it will remain in effect through 2023 provides market certainty for companies to develop long-term investments that drive competition and revive our country's ailing technological innovation engine.

The vital part that the solar and wind industries now play in the U.S. economy are revealed by the numbers: Total employment of more than 400,000 Americans (nearly three times the employment in the coal industry) and projected new infrastructure investment of more than $40 billion in 2017. Perry is far more likely to seek further growth in these numbers than to see them fall under his watch.

There is no political advantage for renewable energy business leaders to weigh in against the impending effort to boost the fortunes of the coal industry or to deter Trump's efforts to "step on the gas" in accelerating growth of domestic oil and gas production. Environmental advocacy is a cause, not a business.

The clean energy industry is a collection of thousands of businesses supported by millions of Americans. Clean energy business leaders cannot confuse environmental advocacy with sound business practices. Environmental advocates may lean left, as they may find more support for their cause in progressive circles. However, clean energy business leaders must be strictly bipartisan in their political discourse.

Fortunately, solar and wind energy already enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress and, more importantly, with the American people. In a recent Pew research report, Clinton voters were overwhelmingly supportive of solar and wind energy: 91 percent and 88 percent, respectively. Even more impressive, however, is that Trump voter support for solar and wind was 84 percent and 77 percent, respectively.

Renewable energy ticks all of the right boxes for the vast majority of Americans: it's clean, increasingly inexpensive, employs lots of Americans and contributes to energy independence. Perry's selection as energy secretary is a hopeful signal that President-elect Trump and the Republican majority will remain true to Republican orthodoxy about "all of the above" as the mantra steering U.S. energy policy.

Commentary by Neil Auerbach, CEO of Hudson Clean Energy. Mr Auerbach co-founded the renewable energy vision at Goldman Sachs over a decade ago and has actively worked in recent years in support of Republican legislative initiatives at the federal level in support of clean energy.

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