Rick Perry, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Energy Department, has deep oil industry ties and longstanding doubts about global warming. Yet clean-energy advocates see a potential ally.
The former Texas governor, who in a 2010 book accused scientists of manipulating climate change data, oversaw a boom that made the oil-rich state the biggest producer of wind power as aging coal-fired plants were replaced. On Wednesday, President-elect Trump nominated his onetime rival to become Secretary of Energy.
The boom overseen by Perry was fueled largely by legislation he signed into law, which required the state to increase its clean-energy usage and transmission lines to connect remote — and not-yet-built — wind farms to the grid. So while Perry champions fossil fuels and has pushed to roll back regulations to expand natural gas and oil drilling, experts say he probably won’t stand in the way of renewable power.
“He’s demonstrated an ability to be supportive of policies that are important for modernizing the electrical grid and integrate renewables,” said Greg Wetstone, president and chief executive officer of the American Council On Renewable Energy in Washington. “He’s somebody we’re hopeful we could work with.”
When Perry took over as governor from former President George W. Bush in 2000, Texas had about 210 megawatts of wind power, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The state now has almost 19,000 megawatts, enough to power the entire nation of Chile. Much of that came through about $7 billion of transmission projects approved in 2005, with support from Perry, to cart wind from remote windswept regions toward Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
“He’s somebody who is familiar with the issues of renewables and clean-energy development,” said Ethan Zindler, an analyst with New Energy Finance in Washington. “The fact that he’s in there and knows the stuff is good.”
It’s unclear how much sway Perry will have under Trump, who has derided clean energy — especially wind — and vowed to repeal environmental regulations that hinder jobs. Jacob Susman, a vice president of origination at EDF Renewable Energy in New York, said he’s cautiously optimistic that Perry will be better for clean power than other potential candidates.
“Texas is the top state in the U.S. by far in installed wind capacity,” Susman said. “Governor Perry’s roots in the state are important for the wind business.”
Not all clean-power boosters cheered the nomination.
When Perry campaigned for president in 2011, he said he wanted to eliminate multiple federal agencies, including the Energy Department, and then during a live televised debate forgot its name. Jim Marston, founding director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund, said the most telling page in Perry’s energy legacy was his push in 2005 to expedite 18 new coal plants, including 11 proposed by TXU Corp. Environmental groups sued and blocked construction of all but three of the TXU projects.
“If Rick Perry did something while he was governor of Texas that wasn’t purely about fossil fuels, then good,” said Tom Steyer, the San Francisco-based founder of NextGen Climate, in an interview. “But that doesn’t take away from the basic point, which is these people are being chosen to represent concentrated, fossil-fuel corporate interest.”
Any support Perry gave to renewables in Texas was based on economics rather than concern for the environment, said Michael Hogan, a senior adviser at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a clean energy advocacy group in Montpelier, Vermont. The same is apt to be true once Perry arrives in Washington.
“I don’t think he is going to make life any easier for renewables, but I don’t think he is going to make it any tougher,’’ Hogan said. “He is a free market conservative.’’