President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris accord hurts his base most, Roopali Phadke writes
The accord supports the wind-energy sector, a major source of jobs in the reddest counties
Correction: This article initially stated Logan's Gap wind farm was in Comanche County, Oklahoma, but it's actually in Texas. It has been removed from the piece for accuracy.
Editor’s Note: Roopali Phadke, a political science professor at Macalester College, focuses her research and teaching on climate, energy and water policy. She and her students participated in the 2015 Paris climate summit. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
President Donald Trump argued Thursday that the Paris climate agreement was a raw deal for America – one that would kill jobs across the country. What he didn’t say was that the accord supports solutions like wind energy, which incentivize US business to invest in energy projects that largely benefit his base of rural Republicans.
In other words, if we had stayed in the Paris accord, it would have helped pave the way for even more economic opportunities and jobs in rural America.
Data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which tracks the location of every wind turbine in America, support the idea that withdrawal from the Paris accord will hit Trump’s base the hardest.
Working with a group of Macalester College students to examine the FAA data and compare it with the 2016 election results, I learned that wind power has overwhelmingly taken root in red states, counties and precincts. Our research found that 96% of the nearly 46,000 turbines recorded by the FAA in wind farms across the US are located in red counties or in red precincts within blue counties.
The correlation between wind and the GOP isn’t an accident. Wind farms are situated where the wind blows strongest and there is available space on power lines. The former is based on local wind resources; the latter requires public policy.
In the reddest of states, like Texas and Oklahoma, elected leaders have invested in building transmission lines that carry electricity from wind farms. Energy Secretary Rick Perry supported wind energy infrastructure and incentives as governor of Texas, which paved the way for that state to become the nation’s leader in wind energy. Perry also supported staying in the Paris agreement.
Nearly 70% of registered voters think the US should stay in the Paris treaty, Yale University’s national public opinion surveys show. Their climate polls also demonstrate that voters in red counties resoundingly support renewable energy. For example, 73% of voters chose Trump in Texas’ Taylor County, home to one of the nation’s largest wind farms at Horse Hollow. In that same county, 78% of those polled said they support funding research in renewable energy. Similarly, 59% of voters in Oklahoma’s Comanche County, home to Blue Canyon wind farms, voted for Trump, while 81% of those surveyed in Comanche support funding renewable energy.
This support stems from the rural economic development provided by wind farms. In addition to the staggering growth of jobs in the wind-tech sector, a landowner in places like Nebraska can earn upwards of $10,000 per turbine per year. According to the American Wind Energy Association, 70% of wind farms are located in low-income counties, and developers currently pay $245 million a year in lease payments to farmers, ranchers and other rural landowners.
For these reasons, many Republican political leaders had urged Trump to stay in the Paris treaty and pursue the expansion of wind energy. The bi-partisan Governors’ Wind and Solar Energy Coalition, which includes governors from 20 states, wrote to Trump back in March arguing, “The nation’s wind and solar energy resources are transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act over 150 years ago.”
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Similarly, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa stated that he would allow Trump to attack tax credits for wind energy “over my dead body.” In 2016, Iowa generated 37 % of its electricity from wind. Facebook and Google have invested billions in Iowa to create data centers powered by clean, low-cost wind energy.
By pulling out of the Paris treaty, Trump has signaled to his constituents that he is abandoning one of the existing economic engines of rural America. Rather than bring back an anemic coal industry, we need to continue to ride this wave of rural development. Coal investors seem to agree. Chris Beam, president of Appalachian Power, West Virginia’s largest utility company, just stated that all new power generation would likely come from wind, solar and natural gas – not coal.
The bottom line is that renewable energy matters to all Americans – and perhaps most surprisingly to rural Americans in red states. In leaving the Paris accord, Trump is tilting at windmills rather than leaning into the wind.