At a campaign-style rally in Iowa on Thursday, President Donald Trump ripped on wind energy. “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your house and your factory as the birds fall to the ground,” he said, apparently in reference to instances of birds killed by wind turbines.
While Trump’s comments got cheers from the crowd at the rally, they drew condemnation from most of the rest of the state. Despite the Trump administration’s policies emphasizing jobs at the expense of the environment, Republican-led states across the country have quietly acknowledged that jobs are more plentiful in the green economy than they are in Trump’s coal-fired economy. And as Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris deal and touts his American First agenda, at the state level, even Republicans are embracing green initiatives — albeit without openly antagonizing Trump.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley told the Washington Post through a spokesperson that he would fight any anti-wind policies from Trump, and environmental and energy advocates in the state both decried the president’s comments.
Iowa gets a larger share of its energy from wind power than any other state. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s energy comes from wind and the industry employs about 7,000 people statewide. There’s $4 billion in investments for new wind projects slated for construction.
Though Iowa is and has been steadfastly Republican, the windswept Midwest — along with other unlikely corners of Trump Country — is home to an unusual coalition of Republicans who have been supporting the expansion of renewable energy at the expense of Trump’s favorite energy source: coal.
And Iowa’s newly anointed governor, Kim Reynolds — who was standing on stage with Trump in Des Moines on Thursday — is a strong proponent of wind energy. And while she was lieutenant governor, before Trump appointed then-Governor Terry Branstad as ambassador to China, she put forward an energy plan that called for growing the wind, biofuels and solar industries.
Like other Republicans at the state-level, she supports wind energy without putting any political emphasis on weaning her state off coal. But with billions of dollars invested in new wind power — investment that the state supports — the implication is that the state will reduce its reliance on coal over the course of the next few years.
“The Iowa story, it’s a model,” Josh Mandlebaum, a lawyer for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Des Moines, tells VICE News. “Iowa has really benefitted from showing leadership on renewable energy. Other states have seen this and noticed that it’s been really good for the state’s economy.”
And it’s true: Renewables are enjoying support in a handful of red states. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed a bill last week that provides tax breaks for residential and commercial solar installations. Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada, signed a bill that encouraged solar investment in his state last week, too. Last year, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts signed a bill that established the largest offshore wind farm in the country.
And even where governors aren’t supporting clean energy initiatives, state legislatures are pushing them through anyway. In Maryland, the general assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that commits the state to 40 percent reduction in emissions over 2006 levels by 2040.
But though Republicans are largely embracing renewables over coal — and are quietly defying Trump in doing so — the emphasis is on new, green investment rather than on leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Studies have indicated that, in order to prevent catastrophic global warming, we’ll need to keep 80 percent of known fossil fuels in the ground.
“In Iowa, we’ll be able to hit 50 percent renewables without a mandate,” Mandlebaum said. But that doesn’t mean that the markets alone will determine the progress that Iowa ultimately makes toward reducing its reliance on coal or its emissions, overall. “Policy decisions that we make will matter a lot as to whether Iowa develops a solar market.”
By the way, Trump was right that wind turbines do kill birds: An estimated 140,000 to 328,000 each year in North America, compared with 6.8 million by cell and radio towers and more than 1.4 billion by cats.