Trump impact on US electric power sector still unclear

Washington (Platts)--23 Nov 2016 1202 pm EST/1702 GMT

Uncertainty is the watchword in the US electric power sector as it waits to learn if Trump administration actions and policies will result in appreciable generation stack changes for both merchant generators and integrated utilities.

None of the half-dozen or so industry officials and observers interviewed during the past week could foresee a major, immediate shift in a generation stack that continues to be dominated by more natural gas and renewables, with coal and nuclear power playing a declining or stagnant role.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump promised during his successful campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton that he would gut the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide thought to contribute to global climate change and withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, among key environmental policy initiatives.

He also repeatedly pledged in Appalachian and other coal-producing states to "bring back" coal jobs to a region that has been decimated in recent years by the Obama administration's so-called "war on coal."

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EEI says greenhouse emissions already dropping

The Edison Electric Institute, the national group for shareholder-owned electric utilities in the US, noted that greenhouse gas emissions in the US have continued to decrease even without the CPP.

At the end of 2015, those emissions were down 21% below 2005 levels, and nearly one-third of US power generation came from zero-emissions sources -- renewables such as wind and solar, and nuclear, EEI said.

Electric companies provide virtually all of the wind, geothermal and hydropower in the US, with the amount of electricity produced from wind doubling from 2010 to 2014, EEI added.

That indicates many generators already have moved, or are in the process of moving, to cleaner energy sources -- with or without the CPP.

American Electric Power is one of them.

Just a few years ago, the Columbus, Ohio-based company, one of the largest electric utilities in the US, also consumed the most coal to generate electricity. Since then, AEP has retired in excess of 7,000 MW of coal generation across the 11 states where it operates.

"AEP is in the midst of an important transition to support a cleaner energy economy," AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said in an email. "We are transforming the transmission grid to be responsive to new resources and technologies, while at the same time balancing our company's resource portfolio to provide new, cleaner energy and technology options for our customers. That will not change in the [Trump] Administration."

Trump's infrastructure investment plans touted

Trump's stated support for infrastructure investments is positive for the industry, McHenry noted, "as it is critical to enable technological advances and a cleaner energy economy. Given the importance of energy issues, we're hopeful that the Trump administration can work effectively with both parties to advance a coherent, consistent and flexible energy policy for the nation."

Trump or no Trump, Michigan's largest electric utility, DTE Energy, intends to move forward with plans to retire more coal generation and build more than 1,000 MW of natural gas-fired generation in the state over the next decade, according to Brian Corbett, a company spokesman.

"That has not changed," he said in an interview.

An impending Trump presidency will not alter DTE's plans to launch a formal certificate of need process with the Michigan Public Service Commission before the end of 2016 to construct the initial combined-cycle gas plant, he added.

Trump impacts too early to know

Others are waiting to see what Trump has in store for the power sector.

"It's a little early to know" about the potential Trump impact, said Bryan Lee, spokesman for the Retail Energy Supply Association, a national group in Washington, DC, whose members serve competitive markets but also includes companies such as Dynegy and NRG Energy, among the largest independent power producers in the US.

As Lee observed, "you could be expecting one outcome, then another happens."

Paul Patterson, a Glenrock Associates analyst in New York, pointed out in a November 14 email that factors other than national carbon policy have shaped power generation preferences.

For instance, natural gas has displaced coal in large part because of its lower costs as opposed to its lower carbon profile, he said, "and I don't see a Trump administration being all that keen to restrict fracking."

Also, it is not at all clear that federal tax laws regarding renewables "will necessarily change under Trump," Patterson said.

Finally, he continued, many states appear to have their own climate-related goals "that aren't necessarily dependent on the CPP," citing New York as an example.

He said, however, it may be possible that some jurisdictions with less internal political support for reducing carbon could become less aggressive in implementing carbon reduction efforts "in the absence of something like the CPP."

Most likely, that could include states like Kentucky and Indiana, the latter where Trump's vice president-elect, Mike Pence, is the Republican governor. Pence has been an outspoken critic of the CPP in particular and the Obama admnistration's environmental policies in general.

--Bob Matyi,

Platts Email

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