An important thing to keep in mind about President Trump is that his political ideology was forged both by far-right conservative media and by his own personal feuds. Every president comes into office with preconceived notions and every president, Trump included, tempers some of those notions when presented with the new context of the presidency. But Trump also seems less inclined to present more carefully calibrated versions of his positions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
So we get comments like this, from his interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that was published Wednesday.
[F]rom Day One I want fracking and everything else to get energy prices low and to create tremendous energy. We’re going to be self-supporting, we just about are now. We’re going to be exporting energy — he doesn’t want that. He would like Hillary where she wants to have windmills. He would much rather have that because energy prices would go up and Russia as you know relies very much on energy.
The “he” in that quote is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump was arguing that Putin would rather have had Hillary Clinton as president because she would have kept energy prices high and, he said earlier in the interview, “decimated” the military. This is the argument he was making.
But let’s set that assertion — that revision of his famous “no puppet, you’re the puppet” line from the third presidential debate — aside. Let’s instead focus on the merits of his case, specifically that Clinton “wants to have windmills” which would make “prices go up” — which Putin would like because he relies on energy.
First, let’s explain why Trump hates windmills. Admittedly, we’ve explained this before. We explained it during the primary when he grudgingly embraced subsidies for wind energy when a woman whose husband worked for a wind turbine manufacturer asked. We explained it last month, when Trump, out of the blue, started talking about dead birds. To our point at the beginning, though, it’s worth a quick revisit.
In short: Trump decided to build a golf course on the Scottish coast. The Scots had already approved an offshore wind farm for the same area. Trump was annoyed that the turbines would spoil the view. So he spent years fighting the wind project in the courts and lambasting Scottish political leaders on Twitter, building up more and more frustration at turbines generally to oppose this specific project. Turbines kill birds! They’re ugly! They’re a waste of money! Etc. (Incidentally: They do kill birds, but fewer than are killed by, say, skyscrapers.)
I never equated wind farms to the Pan Am Lockerbie disaster – only stated that @AlexSalmond should never have released the terrorist – BAD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2014
So this is why Trump, to this day, hates wind turbines. That wind power also competes with his beloved coal is just another layer to his emotions, though it’s worth noting that in the United States in 2017, more people work in wind power than in coal mining.
Let’s set that aside, and evaluate Trump’s actual argument. Clinton loves wind, which would make energy prices go up, which Putin would like. Is that true?
It can be tricky to compare the costs of electricity generation from various sources. The financial firm Lazard produces an annual analysis “levelizing” the cost of production — meaning that it creates comparable ranges of costs per megawatt-hour of electricity from different sources. It converts apples into oranges, if you will. (A megawatt-hour is the go-to unit of electricity production: 1,000 kilowatts of electricity being used for one hour.)
According to Lazard, producing electricity through wind is cheaper than producing it with coal.
Note that these prices are excluding government subsidies.
There are a lot of caveats here. Among them is that the higher end of the coal range includes coal plants that do carbon sequestration — a process to prevent carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Another is that offshore wind is more expensive. But comparing one slightly weird orange to another, wind is less expensive per megawatt-hour, according to Lazard.
Analysis from Bloomberg News has wind and coal about even at this point — but it predicts that the price of wind energy will continue to fall. (So will the price of solar, much more dramatically.)
Last year, PolitiFact rated former president Barack Obama’s assertion that wind was cheaper than “dirty fossil fuels” in Texas as true. In March of this year, Moody’s argued that new wind power was threatening established coal plants — for market reasons.
There’s another caveat worth mentioning here, though, as Trump did when he was talking about the dead birds in June. “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factory,” he said. That’s the downside to wind energy, certainly: You don’t need to keep buying and burning coal to turn the turbine, but you also have to wait until the wind blows. To some extent, anyway; even when wind speeds are low, some energy is produced, and wind farms are placed in areas where the wind is more likely to blow. (This is a good explanation of this issue.) This is one reason that birds are at risk: They also like to travel through places where they can catch breezes.
Back to Putin. It’s true that the fracking boom in the United States shifted energy markets. At home, power plants converted from coal to natural gas which was cleaner and had dropped in price. Internationally, OPEC nations allowed oil prices to plummet to try to drive frackers out of business. That hurt Putin, since Russia produces more crude oil than just about anyone.
Crude oil, though, is used less for electricity generation than for manufacturing and transportation. Only about 4 percent of global energy production used oil in 2014. Wind power, on the other hand, isn’t used in cars. The two aren’t really in direct competition.
What’s more, clean-energy advocates argue that the falling prices of wind and solar will drive another market opportunity on which the United States should be poised to capitalize. Trump is arguing against that.
Weirdly, Trump is also simultaneously arguing for a much more expensive form of energy. He loves to tout “clean coal” as a way of paying homage to that industry. But “clean coal” is a process, as Quartz notes, in which emissions from burning the coal are captured. In other words, it’s that energy production with coal that falls at the more expensive end of the range on the chart above.
There are a variety of reasons that a Republican president might argue for more oil production in lieu of more investment in wind power. But for Trump, part of it stems from his years-long feud with Scotland. Meaning that he’s mixing his old feud with members of parliament in that country with his feud from last year’s presidential election to defend himself against charges that he’s too close to Putin.
But that’s Donald Trump.