Bullish on Renewable Energy: Investors Argue Trump Can’t Stop the Revolution

Entrepreneurs say the $1.6 billion sale of sPower, a clean energy firm, shows money is still headed to low-carbon power, regardless of the administration’s efforts.

Solar energy installation in Nevada
Solar generating station at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. The doomsday coverage of the attack on renewable energy by the Trump administration is "fake drama," according to one solar entrepreneur. "We've already won the battle." Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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For proponents of clean energy, the Donald Trump administration already seems like a nightmare. In the worst moment so far, Trump surrounded himself with coal miners and signed an executive order last week that aims to rescind former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. That regulation would have continued to move the power industry away from coal-burning plants and toward wind and solar farms.

So is Washington trying to kill the renewable energy revolution? Jeff Tannenbaum and Jigar Shah don’t believe that’s possible. They were both involved with a company called sPower, which has built and operates 150 utility-scale solar and wind power projects across the U.S. and the U.K. It was sold in February to giant utility AES Corporation for $1.6 billion—one of the biggest deals ever in the green energy industry.

Tannenbaum and Shah say that deal is just one of many that prove the shift away from fossil fuels is inevitable, whatever the political climate and no matter who is in the White House.  

Jeff Tannenbaum, founder of Fir Tree Partners. Photo courtesy of Jeff Tannenbaum

Tannenbaum is the founder of Fir Tree Partners, a private investment firm with $10 billion under management. His clients are endowments, pension funds and foundations, and he did not make his bet on sPower because he is an environmental activist. He said his primary goal is to make good long-term investments. Fir Tree acquired sPower three years ago for the most traditional of reasons—because Tannenbaum saw a potentially booming market for clean power companies.

In contrast, Shah, owner of a firm called Generate Capital, has been a renewables advocate for decades. His company provides financing for commercial-scale renewable energy generation projects, heating equipment retrofits, energy storage, urban farms and wastewater treatment technologies. He was a founder of solar energy pioneer SunEdison, is the author of the book “Creating Climate Wealth,” and had been on the board of directors of sPower since 2014.

Shah is frustrated with what he sees as the media’s doomsday coverage of the attack on clean energy by the Trump administration. “This is fake drama,” he said, referring to Trump’s executive order. “We’ve already won the battle. You should be covering renewables like you did with the dawn of fracking—as if this changes everything.”

Jigar Shah, cofounder and president of Generate Capital. Photo courtesy of Jigar Shah

The case for optimism is grounded in swelling private markets and technological advances that Tannenbaum and Shah believe are immune to U.S. government interference. They point out that more than 60 percent of new energy generation in 2016 was from wind and solar. And that was in a year when the United States put 26 new gigawatts online—the largest addition since 2012—according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Shah said that, subtracting the energy being produced by fossil fuel plants retired last year, net new electricity generation was clean.

The appetite for that power comes not just from utilities being forced by state laws to meet carbon reduction targets, Tannenbaum and Shah said, but also from private markets and corporate demand. Fortune 500 companies like Google, Walmart, Facebook, Mars and Nestle have all set goals to use 100 percent clean power. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the number of companies signing long-term green-power contracts in 2016 dropped from 2015, but more are still coming. Tannenbaum said Fortune 500 green-power commitments will add up to 50 gigawatts in the next five to seven years. State requirements—if they remain unchanged—will add another 80 gigawatts in the next decade.

Tannenbaum argues this trend will only accelerate, even if subsidies for renewables are phased out. Producing electricity with solar and wind farms is already cheaper than energy from new coal plants. Although generating electricity with natural gas is still cheaper, he acknowledged, that should change over the next few years as costs continue to decline. “In just three years at sPower, our cost curve on the build-out went from two dollars per megawatt hour to one dollar and it is heading to $.85 in the near future,” he said.

And that is without the big game-changer. China announced in January it would spend $360 billion to develop renewables in the next three years, which it forecasts will create 13 million new jobs. “I’ve never heard of a number bigger than $350 billion in three years in any industry,” Tannenbaum said. “Not in cars. Not in cable. It would be a tremendous economic tragedy for the new administration to miss the opportunity China sees and not go after this tremendous—and much needed—job creation.”

Shah says that even without China-scale investment, renewables are building a solid employment base in the U.S., while coal continues a long decline. Despite coal production increasing from 883 million tons in 1985 to 1,150 million tons in 2005, automation caused jobs in the industry to drop from 173,000 to fewer than 80,000. As coal production has fallen since then, industry jobs have declined to fewer than 70,000. Meanwhile, the solar industry said it employed more than 260,000 as of 2016 and that roughly 1 in 50 new jobs nationwide last year were in that industry.

Renewables also enjoy the cool factor, Shah said. “I saw an executive from Shell Oil on TV complaining that people don’t want to work for him,” Shah said. In contrast, renewable energy “is the hottest job market in 25 years and I have 500 resumes sitting on my desk.”

Not everyone in the green power community is sanguine about the impact of the Trump administration’s policy reversals. Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, a national non-partisan group of environmental entrepreneurs, is particularly concerned that state governments will feel empowered to push back against new state environmental requirements. In Illinois, opponents of the so-called Future Energy Jobs Law—a 2016 law mandating that certain amounts of energy be generated from solar and wind—filed lawsuits in February to stop it from going into effect. In North Dakota, legislators have proposed a two-year ban on new wind energy. In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich has already vetoed a bill to freeze alternative energy and energy efficiency standards, and the bill is coming around again.

“The people fighting against these smart policies were just emboldened by the president of the United States and that is something to worry about,” Keefe said.

Even in states that support renewables, this promises to be a rocky year. In California, for example, the independent operator of California’s electrical grid has said it will have to curtail solar. The grid simply can’t absorb all the hydropower from record snows and solar production. Having too much sustainable power sounds like a victory, but it represents a fundamental weakness in renewables. They don’t produce power efficiently at peak use times (morning and evening) and there still aren’t enough storage options.

Still, Tannenbaum is not discouraged. Yes, he argued, the new political environment will be challenging for renewable companies and lots will go out of business, but that is the nature of an infant industry. “We will look back in 20 years and remember this was the first inning,” he said. “It’s like the beginning of the Internet revolution; 99 percent of companies went out of business. But there were winners and there will be lessons learned.”

Shah is even more confident. “The Clean Power Plan was entirely about shutting down coal plants, never about promoting renewables,” he said. “Now [coal] may live three to five years longer, but that doesn’t hurt renewable energy.

“People say, ‘What if they could bring back coal’? I say, ‘What if a pig could fly’?”

Leslie Kaufman, a former New York Times national environment reporter, is founder of Red for the Blue.