Its intent may be to keep out potential terrorists and low-wage workers allegedly taking American jobs. But, the Trump administration’s actions on immigration have far-reaching consequences on every sector of the American economy—consequences the energy sector will not escape.
Anti-immigrant policies turn away bright young people who want to attend some of the best universities in the world, located right here in the U.S. They turn away recent graduates of these top schools who want nothing more than to get a job here and put their new skills to work in the American economy. And, they turn away highly-skilled workers who for centuries have looked to the U.S. as a place where their talents can do some good in the world. Even if the Trump administration’s executive order only excludes people from a certain set of countries, many more potential immigrants from other countries will decide that they are better off exploring opportunities in countries that are more welcoming to people like them.
The cruel reality is, policies that suppress immigration also suppress innovation. And, innovation has, and will always be, a key part of the energy landscape. One doesn’t need to look far to see that many of the world’s biggest energy breakthroughs have happened here in the U.S. thanks to our vibrant immigrant community. So, let’s shine a light on some of the immigrants who have helped to build—some quite literally—the energy landscape as we know it today.
In the early days of American history, Croatian-born Nikola Tesla and UK-born Samuel Insull perhaps contributed more than anyone else to the modern electric utility system. During the late 1800’s, they got their start working alongside Thomas Edison, but soon went off on their own. Tesla created the “Tesla coil” and modern alternating current system, which allowed for the long-distance transmission of electricity.
Meanwhile, Insull went on to build the world’s largest power plant at the time, revolutionizing the industry by employing a dynamic pricing method that made it possible for people of all socio-economic backgrounds to get electricity at all hours of the day. In a young, emerging American energy market, Insull provided cheap electricity to millions of customers in more than 30 states.
Fast forward fifty years or so to the early-to-mid 1900’s and a new wave of immigrants swept the country. Many Americans were not happy these Italian and Irish workers were here, creating a backlash similar to what Mexican workers are experiencing today. Out of that crop of new arrivals came Italian-born Enrico Fermi, one of the most influential physicists in American history. Fermi was in the United States for 43 years before becoming a citizen. But in that time, he built the world’s first nuclear reactor and initiated the first controlled nuclear chain reaction underneath the University of Chicago’s old football stadium. His innovations in nuclear energy cemented nuclear as a primary source of energy around the world. In 2015, nuclear energy provided about one-fifth of all electricity in the U.S. Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, while still not a U.S. citizen.
The more modern crop of immigrants continue to disrupt the energy landscape with pioneering advances. Among them is a Jewish refugee from Soviet Ukraine, Michael Polsky. Polsky came to the U.S. in 1976, landing a job at Bechtel at the age of 27. Less than a decade later he owned his own independent power company, before starting up his current company Invenergy—one of the nation largest developers of wind energy. But Polsky’s innovative spirit extends beyond himself. He founded the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, his alma mater. The Center’s relationship with Argonne National Laboratory and its New Venture Challenge—a business plan competition—breeds new young talent every year, in the energy field and beyond.
And then, there’s Elon Musk. Born in South Africa, Musk got his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and founded at least two companies here in the U.S. before becoming a citizen in 2002—a full 10 years since he arrived. One of those companies, Paypal, now employs more than 16,500 workers. Musk went on to lead Tesla Motors (aptly named after the other famous immigrant I’ve already mentioned, Nikola Tesla) and SolarCity. Both companies are revolutionizing the energy business, providing cutting-edge battery technologies for both transportation and storage, and more efficient and affordable solar panels. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, which said his projects “are making a clean, renewable-energy future a reality.”
These trailblazers are not the only U.S. immigrants who made an impression on our energy landscape. And, pioneers like them are also not unique to the energy sector. Every sector—from medicine to information technology—has their shining examples of inventors at work who weren’t born in America but are proud to call it home. Policies that suppress the desire—or worse, the outright ability—of such innovators to come to the U.S. will hurt not just the American ecosystem of ideas, but global progress on some of the world’s greatest challenges.
**Special thanks to Riley Foley who assisted me with this article.