Donald Trump

Wind, Solar Power on the Rise Amid Trump's Mooted Coal Comeback

"There is an energy revolution brewing that is going much faster than people realize"

President Donald Trump's push to lift the coal industry to a new heyday is likely to flounder, according to environmentalists and even some in the coal industry who think the fossil fuel is irreversibly on its way out as renewable fuels get more efficient.

As the government focuses on boosting the coal industry, looking to bolster blue collar jobs, renewable energy is providing the fastest-growing jobs in the country, particularly wind and solar, far surpassing the coal industry.

Renewables today produce a slim percentage of the total energy produced in the U.S., but the infrastructure behind it is rapidly expanding. In fact, wind and solar industries are already building new facilities at a pace similar to natural gas, which has long been the leading energy source in the country, according to environmental groups tracking their rise.

Last month, Trump reversed an Obama-era rule to allow the leasing of federal land to private coal mining companies, beginning to deliver for the coal industry as he frequently promised during the presidential campaign.

But's not clear how much he can do for the industry. Even industry insiders admit that some mining jobs lost in recent years were the result of technological advances, not government regulations, and may not come back.

"We may never see the coal industry return to pre-2009 levels," said Terry Headley, communications director for the American Coal Council, in an email to NBC. 

Jobs have been Trump's priority, but the renewable energy is generating many more of them than coal is, according to Stanford professor and climate change expert Rob Jackson.

There are now 475,000 jobs in solar and wind energy, compared to 175,000 in coal across the United States, Jackson said. A hundred thousand new solar and wind jobs were added last year alone. 

The revival of the coal industry is "just not going to happen," said John Coequyt, global climate policy director for environmental group Sierra Club.

In fact, the rise of renewable energy is directly correlated to the demise of coal, Coequyt said. Last year was the first time that wind and solar energy infrastructure construction surpassed fossil fuels in U.S., according to the Department of Energy. That's a necessary step before green energy production can eclipse fossil fuel production.

"With solar and wind, there is very little risk at this point," he said. "People know exactly what they're going to get from these facilities. Many other energy investments come with all kinds of crazy risks," like unintended overhead costs.

"There is an energy revolution brewing that is going much faster than people realize," said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that researches energy sustainability and resource efficiency. "The reality is that the wind industry and the solar industry are driving forward at an unrelenting pace."

Headley takes issue with much of this assesment. There are more jobs associated with coal than miners, he said, and they are high-paying and already starting to come back after it was handicapped by the Obama administration's policies, which subsidized clean energy companies.

"It will take some time, but we believe we can compete on a level playing field," Headley said.

There are five types of renewable energy. As Trump turns the federal government's focus back to coal, here's a look at the progress renewables are making:

Dams and other hydropower generators are the leading producer of renewable energy in the U.S., generating a steady 7 percent of the country's total energy each year. However, growth in the industry has mostly stopped because of the difficulty involved in building new dams, Jackson said.

The best hydropower sites have already been built and the next-best places for dams, like the Grand Canyon and some national parks, are off limits, he said. 

And there may no longer be enough appetite in America for such large infrastructure projects.

"It is hard to imagine in the U.S. we could build another Hoover Dam because of the social cost and impact on people associated with large dam projects," Kortenhorst said. "Hydro will grow, but it will grow modestly." 

Wind energy is leading the country in building new energy infrastructure, Kortenhorst said, and it is only a matter of time before wind surpasses hydropower as the leading source of renewable energy, according to Jackson.

Wind turbine service technician is the fastest growing job in America, with the workforce more than doubling between 2014 to 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This industry has grown so rapidly because it is extremely cost effective, Kortenhorst said. Wind energy harnessed in the western United States costs about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Coal, by comparison, is about 5-6 cents per kWh, according to Kortenhorst's estimates based on government data and third-party predictors.

Taken together, wind turbines across the country have the capacity to power about 24 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. 

Energy from the sun makes up a tiny portion of the total energy generated in the U.S. today, but it's one of the fastest-growing sources. While solar only generated 1 percent of all the country's electricity last year, production has doubled in the last two years, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

In 2016, a new solar installation was completed every 84 seconds, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). And the industry more than doubled its workforce from 2012 to 2016, employing 260,000 Americans across 9,000 companies.

The increased prevalence of solar power is correlated with a drop in cost for solar panels and upkeep, Coequyt said. Most solar power comes from utility-scale projects, which took off last year. The SEIA estimated that solar has seen a 60 percent decrease in overhead costs in the last decade.  

"As [solar and wind] continue to grow around the world, there is an unrelenting cost pressure that brings these prices down," Kortenhorst said.

Biomass still represents a small fraction of renewable energy production, Jackson said. The process of producing oils for fuel from living creatures like algae and soybeans is not remotely comparable to the progress that wind and solar power have made, operating on a small scale similar to geothermal energy. 

Biomass has stayed extremely consistent in its energy output over the last decade, according to the Energy Information Association. It it simply not financially competitive yet, Jackson said.

Electricity generated by the Earth's heat is a smaller player in the field of renewable energy because it is still a costly option. Geothermal energy provides merely 0.2 percent of all energy consumed in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

Coequyt said geothermal leaves "too much uncertainty" because drilling does not guarantee finding sufficient temperatures to make electricity.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Robert Murray, CEO of coal mining company Murray Energy, provided to The Guardian. Murray Energy said the quote was taken out of context, so it has been removed from this story.

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