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Politics

We Fact Checked Everything Trump Has Said About Wind and Solar Since 2021

The whales will be fine.

Donald Trump and wind and solar power.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Donald Trump loves eagles and whales and therefore he wants to protect them — from clean energy development.

Trump may, however, be relieved to hear that many of his concerns about wind and solar energy are unfounded. Here’s what he gets right and wrong.

Pointing out the window to the Atlantic Ocean at one point, one attendee said, the former president claimed that offshore wind turbines break down when they are exposed to saltwater … [April 17, 2024]

Fact check: Let’s just get this out of the way: offshore wind turbines are designed to withstand saltwater exposure. People have been building things in saltwater for a long, long time. From the oldest known ships constructed 6,000 years ago out of papyrus reeds to Norway’s Troll A platform — a reinforced concrete offshore natural gas platform and the tallest structure ever moved by humankind — we’ve learned a few things about resisting salt corrosion.

This scene occurred during a fundraising dinner with oil and gas executives at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort reported on by The Washington Post, which also pointed out this obvious fact. That said, to the former president’s credit, “the ocean is indeed a difficult environment” for construction and engineering, Eric Hines, a civil and environmental engineering professor and the director of the offshore wind energy graduate program at Tufts University, told me. But the lifespan of offshore structures can range from a few years to more than a century.

According to Hines, most offshore wind farms today are built to have “approximately 25-year service lives,” but the design is always evolving. His department, for example, is working on developing advanced underwater foundations that are built to last more than a century and double as artificial reefs.

“I like the concept of solar, but it’s not powerful like what we need to fire up our factories.” [Dec. 16, 2023]

Fact check: “That question is actually a little bit tricky,” Baker, the assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado, told me, when I asked him whether solar alone could power a factory — but it’s also not really what we should be asking. “One thing I’ve noticed people do a lot is they’ll just compare efficiency of power generation,” Baker explained. But “it’s not just about the efficiency — it’s about other things, too, like solar’s ability to be distributed. You can’t put a nuclear fission power plant in your house — you know, not yet — but you can put solar panels, so that’s a huge benefit. It offers some resiliency that other sources just can’t offer.”

It’s true that solar power is less efficient than other sources of energy, including wind, and that it requires a lot of surface area, which could be an undue burden for a manufacturer. But at the same time, “I don’t know if anybody is proposing to power an entire factory based off of solar,” Baker said.“Their windmills are causing whales to die in numbers never seen before. Nobody does anything about that. They’re washing up on shore. I saw it this weekend: Three of them came up! You wouldn’t see it once a year; now they’re coming up on a weekly basis. The windmills are driving them crazy. They’re driving the whales, I think, a little batty.” [Sept. 25, 2023]

Fact check: If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try asking a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if windmills are making whales “a little batty.”

NOAA actively studies how “sound, vessel, and other human activities” impact marine life, Lauren Gaches, the director of NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs, told me over email. “At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales,” she said.

An ongoing “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales has resulted in 200 whale deaths between 2016 and June 2023 along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida — that much is true. But “there are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys,” Gaches told me. NOAA’s fact page on whales and offshore wind explains that of “roughly 90 whales examined, about 40% had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement.”

There has been some chatter about underwater surveying work disrupting whales, which may be true in the case of oil and gas surveys, which use seismic air guns to penetrate deep into the ocean floor. The surveying equipment used for offshore wind is, by contrast, used in 15-second bursts and limited to a specific area, “so the likelihood of an animal encountering and coming right into that sound beam is quite low,” Erica Staaterman, the deputy director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics, said on a NOAA-hosted call with the press early last year.

As Ben Laws, the deputy chief of NOAA’s Permits and Conservation Division in the Office of Protected Resources, said on the same call, “There is no information that would support any suggestion that any of the equipment that’s being used in support of wind development for these site characterization surveys could directly lead to the death of a whale.”

“If you go out hunting and you happen to shoot a bald eagle, they put you in jail, like, for five years, right? They kill thousands of them with these windmills; nothing happens.” [Jan. 28, 2023]
“If you want to see a bird cemetery, go under a windmill sometime. You’ll see birds like you never saw. If you love birds, you’ll start to weep.” [Dec. 16, 2023]

Fact check: Trump has had a vendetta against wind turbines since long before he ever ran for president. “Wind farms are killing many thousands of birds,” reads one illustrative tweet from 2012. “They make hunters look like nice people!”

Lewis Grove is the director of wind and energy policy at the American Bird Conservancy, and he told me that while it’s “not necessarily as simple as Mr. Trump painted it out to be, wind turbines absolutely kill birds.”

But the context here is extremely important. Jason Ryan, a spokesperson for the American Clean Power Association, a leading renewable energy trade group, pointed me to research from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that shows wind farms “represent just 0.03% of all human-related bird deaths in the U.S.” Grove likewise told me that, for the most part, bird deaths due to wind turbines do “not have population-level impacts.”

There are exceptions, such as an infamous wind farm in California’s Altamont Pass built in 1981 that “just happened to be in a place that was really heavily used by golden eagles,” Grove told me. Because golden eagle populations were already very low, having 100 or so killed a year by turbines was “unsustainable.” Even in a case like this, though, it behooves one to look at the whole picture: “They found it was a few individual turbines that were causing the damage,” Grove said. These days, around 60 golden eagles a year are killed in Alameda County, the Alameda Post reports, and the operating company must pay steep penalties for eagle deaths.

What’s more, “climate change is one of the greatest threats birds face, with two-thirds of North American species at risk of extinction due to our warming planet,” Jon Belak, senior manager of science and data analysis at The National Audubon Society, told me in a statement. “We need to build more wind and solar facilities to help slow the rise in global temperatures and protect birds and their habitats from a changing climate.”

Wind farms may not have population-level impacts on birds, but fracking does — “the onset of shale oil and gas production reduces subsequent bird population counts by 15%,” even after accounting for factors like weather and other land-use changes, according to one just-published, peer-reviewed study.

“Remember the windmills? ‘Darling, darling, I want to watch the president, I love him so much. I want to watch him on television tonight.’ ‘I’m sorry, but the wind isn’t blowing, you’ll have to wait ‘til another time.’ Windmills.” [March 26, 2022]

Fact check: “I mean, it’s possible with any mix of generation that if supply and demand aren’t equal, your TV will go out. That’s just physics,” Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado, told me when I asked her if Trump’s scenario had any merit. In other words, a power outage could happen whether your electricity is coming from coal or natural gas or anything else. The difference, she said, is that “wind is by nature variable, intermittent. But it’s also not reliant on fuel like natural gas or coal plants or even nuclear plants are.”

What happens on days when there is no wind? “Grids are extremely regulated,” Baker explained to me. “There’s so many layers of redundancy that aim specifically to not have [an outage] happen.” A grid is made up of diverse electricity sources (for my visual learners, Canary imagines what a net-zero grid could look like here), as well as measures like offline backup generators, which can kick in if need be, so service isn’t disrupted.

Battery storage is another huge part of this equation. While they’re still fairly cutting-edge as climate technology goes, high-capacity batteries that can manage grid-scale energy needs are getting better and more plentiful.

“Stop with all of the windmills all over the place that are ruining the atmosphere.” [Jan. 20, 2022]

Fact check: Wind turbines do not damage the literal atmosphere.

But maybe Trump meant atmosphere as in “sense of place”? Most Americans don’t seem to think windmills are “ruining” anything. In a recent Heatmap poll, nearly eight in 10 Americans said they want the government to make it easier to build new wind farms. The Washington Postsimilarly found last year that about 70% of Americans said they wouldn’t mind living near a wind farm.

As my colleague Robinson Meyer has written, “American laws today give even a small, well-resourced minority plenty of tools to block a project” like a wind farm, and “what’s more, once that small group starts campaigning against a project, the public’s broad but shallow support for, say, a general technology can crater. That’s what happened recently in New Jersey, where a once broadly pro-wind public has turned against four proposed offshore wind farms.”

“It’s a very expensive form — probably the most expensive form of energy.” [Jan. 20, 2022]

Fact check: Wind in general is not the most expensive form of energy, but offshore wind is very expensive — for now.

Of the energy sources we’re currently used to, nuclear is usually cited as having the highest levelized cost of electricity — that is, it has the highest average cost per unit of electricity generated after construction, maintenance, and operation have been taken into account. Peaker plants — gas-powered plants that run just during times of peak demand — usually come in second.

Offshore wind is costly, with the levelized cost of electricity from a subsidized U.S. offshore wind project increasing “to $114.20 per megawatt-hour in 2023, up almost 50% from 2021 levels in nominal terms,” BloombergNEF reports. Many of the factors making offshore wind so expensive — including permitting delays, high interest rates, and supply chain issues — will abate with time. Meanwhile, onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of electricity available and has boasted a “lower LCOE than gas plants since 2015,” Sustainable Energy in America reports.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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