Tesla’s future in Donald Trump’s world

US push for electric cars was set in motion by a $7,500 federal tax break. Now, the Donald Trump administration is believed to eliminate the subsidy


On 17 November, Tesla’s shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. Photo: AP
On 17 November, Tesla’s shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. Photo: AP

What will Donald Trump actually do?

It’s a question many Americans are asking themselves now that the US has wrapped up one of its least policy-specific elections ever. The president-elect has offered only the loosest of legislative prescriptions, including whatever plans he may have for the energy industry.

The mystery hangs over turbine manufacturers like Vestas Wind Systems, which fell 12% since the election, and coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corp., which soared 73%. In his only major energy speech, Trump, 70, said he would rescind “job-destroying” environmental regulations within 100 days of taking office and revive US coal. It’s terrible news for efforts to slow the pace of climate change, but the impact on the renewable energy revolution may be limited. Here’s what it could mean for America’s clean-energy darling, Tesla Motors Inc.:

Solar and wind subsidies are probably safe

Tesla is, first and foremost, an electric car company. But on 17 November shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. The acquisition would make Tesla the biggest US rooftop solar installer and the first major manufacturer to integrate solar panels with battery backup to extend power into the night.

The swift spread of rooftop solar in the US has been made possible by two government policies. First, most utilities are required to credit homeowners for the excess power they send back to the grid. Those requirements are state-level and shouldn’t be affected by Trump. Second is the 30% federal tax credit to offset the cost of installations. The credits were first signed into law under Republican president George W. Bush in 2005 and extended by a Republican Congress late last year. Given their broad support, the subsidies are unlikely to be repealed.

Even without incentives, renewables will get cheaper

Wind power in Solar panel prices have dropped, on average, more than 15% a year since 2013. On a utility scale, solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired grid electricity across most of the US, after subsidies. Even if the incentives were suddenly removed next year—an improbable and economically destructive scenario—the industry would eventually recover as prices continue to fall.

Incentives are designed to make superior new technologies initially affordable, but once those technologies take off, economies of scale take over.

A loss of the federal tax credit could slow the roll-out of Tesla’s unusual new rooftop solar shingles. Traditional rooftop panels, however, are almost ready to stand on their own. The payback period currently ranges from about 5 to 10 years, after subsidies and state rebates. If Tesla can achieve the cost savings it hopes for with the merger, it won’t be long before that’s the payback timeline without subsidies.

Gasoline fuel-efficiency targets could be dismantled

One of president Barack Obama’s most significant climate achievements was to push through ambitious fuel-economy regulations for cars and trucks. The environmental protection agency is scheduled next year to re-asses rules intended to double the efficiency to almost 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Those goals could be delayed or dismantled under Trump, accelerating America’s shift to trucks and SUVs. Stocks of Detroit carmakers have predictably surged, while Tesla shares fell 4.9% in the two days after the election.

This is obviously bad news for the environment, but it’s impact on Tesla should be minimal. The price of batteries is dropping rapidly, and by the early 2020s electric cars may be cheaper and better performing than their gasoline-powered equivalents across the board. Lower efficiency standards will make gasoline cars a bit cheaper to manufacture, but it will also make them more costly to drive over the life of the vehicle.

Electric vehicle incentives will expire on their own

The US push for electric cars was set in motion by a $7,500 federal tax break. The Trump administration could eliminate the subsidy, but the impact would be short-lived for electric pioneers including Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Co., and Tesla. That’s because the electric-vehicle subsidies were already designed to phase out after each automaker reaches its 200,000th domestic EV sale. Tesla may be first to cross that finish line, probably in the first half of 2018.

The incentives were intended to encourage carmakers to invest in electric drivetrain technology while helping overcome obstacles such as start-up costs and slow initial demand. Removing the tax break now would effectively pull the ladder up behind Tesla and make it more expensive for other automakers to transition to battery power, a result that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest.

States wield the power of their own incentives

Some of the biggest incentives in renewable energy are offered by states, not the federal government. Each state has authority over its own solar and wind rebates, utility requirements, credits for power sold back to the grid, and electric-car subsidies. These policies cross ideological borders into deeply Republican states. For example, Louisiana residents can get an additional tax credit of almost $10,000 for buying a long-range electric car. In Colorado, it’s an extra $5,000.

Under Trump, the role of cities and states in regulating pollution and expanding clean energy will increase. So will the disparity between states that prioritize the issue and those that don’t. But again, don’t expect the energy revolution to follow rigid red-state, blue-state definitions. The states with the most wind power in the US include Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. For solar, Arizona, North Carolina, and Nevada are among the leading producers. Of those, Hillary Clinton won only Nevada.

Keystone’s resurrection won’t make gasoline cheaper

This election was great news for oil companies. Reviving the Keystone XL pipeline, which was rejected under Obama, is on Trump’s list of priorities for his first 100 days. He is also likely to support the beleaguered Dakota Access Pipeline. The company building it, Energy Transfer Partners LP, says business is “only going to get better” under Trump.

These pipelines are hugely symbolic for climate activists who say we can’t keep building infrastructure for oil we can’t afford to burn. But the impact of the pipelines themselves is open to debate. They increase profitability for oil companies, but as oil trades on a global market, the impact on US gasoline prices and by extension demand for electric cars is negligible.

Trade barriers with Mexico would hurt Tesla’s rivals

Trump wants to scrap or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That could be a dicey proposition for the car industry. Since 2010, nine automakers, including Ford Motor Co., GM and Fiat Chrysler have announced more than $24 billion in Mexican investments. They rely on Mexican plants to produce millions of vehicles and a high volume of parts.

By contrast, Tesla’s manufacturing and assembly are done almost entirely in California and Nevada. Tesla also plans to begin solar-panel production next year at SolarCity’s massive plant in Buffalo, N.Y. Tariffs on solar panels made outside the US could benefit those American-made panels.

In the end, the confluence of all of these forces, but especially the precipitous decline of coal and increasing affordability of renewable sources of energy, is probably too strong to be reversed by the incoming Republican administration. That’s good news for Tesla, and a lot of other companies working to clean up the energy supply. Bloomberg

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