The Trump administration’s new proposal to replace the Clean Power Plan–the Obama-era policy to move utilities away from coal and toward renewable electricity–gives states the option do little to cut pollution, despite the fact that the EPA calculated that the resulting smog could kill as many as 1,400 additional people a year. The policy is designed specifically to help coal plants stay open. But in spite of that, renewable energy is likely to continue to grow anyway.
The Clean Power Plan, which Obama called the “single most important step America has ever taken to fight climate change” when he announced it in 2015, never went into effect. It was tied up in court after more than two dozen states, along with energy companies and industry groups, sued to prevent it. But as the cost of wind and solar power has steeply dropped and demand has increased, renewable energy has grown–including in the states that opposed the plan. Coal plants have closed as coal has been replaced both by renewables and by cheap natural gas.
“It has been clear for some time that the original Clean Power Plan was not going to go into effect–that Trump was going to kill it–and there’s been no slowdown of the deployment of renewables since that became clear,” says Carl Pope, vice chair of America’s Pledge, an organization founded by Michael Bloomberg that studies how city, state, and business actions are reducing climate emissions in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement. “In fact, the deployment of renewables has accelerated since Donald Trump was elected president. Renewables are not being driven by presidential favor and they’re not being driven by EPA regulations.”
In 2017, 18% of all electricity in the U.S. was produced from renewables, twice as much as a decade before. Carbon emissions fell to the lowest level in 25 years. The Clean Power Plan, if states had implemented it as unambitiously as possible, would have cut emissions 19% by 2030, or 32% at best; by the end of 2017, the U.S. had already cut emissions by 28%, and had plans to close coal plants that would drop emissions an additional 4-6%. “We’re already past what the Clean Power Plan required,” says Pope.
In states that opposed the Clean Power Plan, renewables are still growing. In Kansas, the utility Evergy is planning to retire some coal plants this fall and is investing in new wind projects. Texas generated 18% of its energy from wind and solar in 2017, while electric bills dropped (the state now has more wind capacity than coal). Wisconsin’s two largest utilities recently announced plans to double their planned emissions cuts and reduce the use of coal. Nebraska is considering bills to promote wind and solar. Indiana now employs five times as many people in clean energy than in fossil fuels.
In some cases, businesses are driving the shift. In West Virginia, where Trump announced his replacement for the Clean Power Plan, the utility Appalachian Power is moving away from coal because large new customers–data centers–want to buy renewable energy. Companies like Google are creating demand for new renewable power plants. In Colorado, a massive steel mill will now run on its own solar power plant; in response, the local utility plans to shut down two coal-fired power stations that had been used by the mill.
Dozens of cities, from San Francisco and Minneapolis to Blacksburg, Virginia and Norman, Oklahoma, have committed to transition to 100% renewable energy (a handful, like Burlington, Vermont, have already reached that goal.) State plans that call for a mix of renewable sources have also helped push growth.
“We’re really talking about a marketplace that is delinked from federal policy at this juncture,” says Jennifer Layke, global director of energy at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, though she cautions that federal policy sends longer-term signals to the market that oppose progress. The new policy could also help prop up some coal plants, at least temporarily, that might have otherwise closed because they have been losing money.
“I think it will slow down a certain number of coal plant retirements,” says Pope. “There’ll be a small number of states where state government will insist the coal is kept operating and where as a result there will be more deaths. There will be more expensive utility bills, there will be dirtier air in a small number of states, and the renewables that would have been built in those states will be built elsewhere.”
Overall, however, renewables will grow–albeit not at the pace that they might have with strong federal leadership. On its own, the Clean Power Plan wasn’t enough for the U.S. to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement to keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees in the worst-case scenario. It wasn’t as ambitious as it could have been, as evidenced by the fact that the country achieved its goals without the plan ever taking effect. As Trump fails to set stricter goals, and rolls back other climate policy like fuel economy standards, it gets harder to limit emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. But economics and market demand will continue to push renewables forward. “If the question is without the Clean Power Plan, are we going to continue to decarbonize and build renewables, the answer is absolutely yes,” says Pope.