To say that the Trump administration’s energy policy is confused is a gross understatement. Through the few ups and multitude of downs, the only consistent factor may be inconsistency. In a valiant effort to monitor this rollercoaster, National Geographic has been keeping a running list of every environmental policy change made by the administration. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of deregulation, removing the evil government from meddling with market forces, while at the same time there are heaps of subsidies and tariffs, which upon closer inspection looks more like cronyism than a legit use of public funds.
Surprisingly this time, the administration’s latest chaotic policy veer has put a reluctant smile on the faces of many a greenie. This past week the administration approved the construction of the Gemini solar array in southern Nevada, which will be the countries largest ever. The project, with a price tag of $1 billion, should be completed sometime in 2022. Once it’s running at full capacity the massive photovoltaic array will produce 690 megawatts (MW) of power. While 690-MW isn’t even close to touching Las Vegas’ average summer daily use of 5000+MW, it’s more than a drop in the bucket. According to Smithsonian Magazine, that should offset the greenhouse gas emissions from some 38,000 cars.
In addition to its vast scale, the Gemini plant may also prove the test case that will finally blow the doors open for battery storage. For those unfamiliar with the issue, the problem of unreliability of supply has long plagued the debate over solar. After all, worrying about where your power will come from when the clouds roll in isn’t at all a moot point. If excess power generated by a solar array could be stored in a battery for use on such an occasion this hurdle could be overcome. Scientists, engineers, and policymakers have long been aware of this but the battery technology just hadn’t caught up, until now. The Gemini plant will be outfitted with 380-MW of battery storage capacity.
Coming from this administration, the move is particularly surprising given the president’s own remarks regarding the “dangers” of renewable energy (those quotations are satirical air-quotes). Drumming up fear in the American psyche, he has warned of the threat to bald eagles posed by wind turbines and that they may even cause cancer (hard not to chuckle at that one). Additionally, the US president has closed a critical loophole for solar that would have sheltered it from trade tariffs, a move his buddies in the fossil fuel industry certainly raised a glass to.
Speculation has lead political insiders to believe this particular incongruency in energy policy may be due to folks at the Department of the Interior that were instrumental in seeing the Gemini project through. After all, solar initiatives enjoy wide bipartisan support with 89% of Americans in favor, including 83% of Republican voters. And why not? Greenies can cheer the emission-free tech, while national security hawks can applaud the freedom from foreign markets.
Overall it’s hard to look at what’s happening in the US and feel optimistic about the future of renewable energy. But perhaps here we can all hold on to a glimmer of hope. Maybe, just maybe, there are a handful of scientifically literate beaurcrats helping to make dreams like the Gemini plant come true.