All bets are off: 4 takeaways on what President Trump means for the power sector

The paradigm of decarbonization that’s guided utility sector investments for the past decade is now up in the air. How will the Trump victory impact other industries? Here’s what we know about the President-elect. 

After a long election night, the American public elected real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. The Republican nominee’s win shocked political commentators across the spectrum, as most election models predicted a victory for his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the hours before polls closed.

For the power sector, Trump’s election is likely an unwelcome development. U.S. utility companies gave more money to Clinton than any other candidate this election cycle, while none made sizeable donations to Trump. 

Much of that support came from the fact that Clinton is more of a known quantity to the power sector. Because they invest in multi-decade assets, utilities desire certainty and predictability out of policymaking, and the Clinton campaign laid out a full energy platform promising to build on the model of carbon regulation and renewable energy supports pushed by President Obama.

The Trump campaign, by contrast, was hard to predict: Beyond promises to roll back EPA regulations and support fossil fuels, he laid out few concrete energy policy proposals. And because energy and climate policy rarely featured on the campaign trail this cycle, the details of how a Trump administration would plan to transform U.S. energy production remain unclear. 

In the coming weeks, much effort will be spent trying to decipher who Trump will appoint and how his team will handle the specifics of energy policy. But given that President Trump will likely come into office with a GOP-controlled Congress and a vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court, there are some broad conclusions for the power sector that we can already draw. 

1. The Clean Power Plan — and other air regulations — are in danger 

One of the most immediate impacts of Donald Trump’s election is that the Clean Power Plan now appears much more likely to be struck down. 

The CPP is the EPA’s first set of federal carbon regulations and seeks to cut CO2 emissions from the power sector 32% by 2032. Though the utility industry is largely on board with the plan, a group of conservative states and fossil fuel interests challenged the rules, saying they constitute an overreach of EPA’s authority. 

Those arguments came to a head in September, when the D.C. Circuit Court held an en banc hearing on the regulations. Due to the composition of the court — six Democratic appointees and four from Republicans — legal experts largely expect the rules to be upheld there

But the Supreme Court could be a different story. No matter who prevails at the D.C. Circuit, the high court is expected to take up the Clean Power Plan next year. The justices have already shown interest in the case, placing an unprecedented judicial hold on compliance until court challenges are concluded. 

After Justice Antonin Scalia’s death earlier this year, the Supreme Court has a vacancy, and Republican senators have refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

If the Supreme Court were to hear the Clean Power Plan case with one seat vacant, energy lawyers told Utility Dive that a 4-4 split would be plausible, which would uphold the D.C. Circuit decision. But if Trump puts another conservative on the court — as he has promised — it could potentially give CPP opponents the five skeptical judges they would need to overturn the Clean Power Plan. 

Given that Trump will come into office with a GOP-controlled Senate, that judicial outcome is now much more likely. But even if the Supreme Court upholds the plan, a Trump administration and Republican Congress could still scuttle it by defunding the agency or simply halting implementation work. 

And while the Clean Power Plan is the highest-profile EPA air pollution rule at risk in a new Trump presidency, it is not the only one. Fossil fuel interests still bristle at rules like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which regulates harmful coal power pollution, and the EPA’s new source pollution rules, which govern emissions from new power plants. 

Trump has indicated that he wants to overhaul the EPA. With him in the White House, the future of any clean air or water regulation remains uncertain. 

2. Renewable energy subsidies could be on the chopping block

EPA regulations are a relatively easy way for Donald Trump to weaken President Obama’s clean energy legacy, since many of them are facing current court challenges or could simply not be enforced. 

Renewable energy subsidies would take more of an effort to revoke. At the end of last year, Congress reached a deal to extend supports for wind and solar energy into the early 2020s, with subsidy levels decreasing over time. That tax credit extension is fueling a boom in deployment, with renewables expected to add the vast majority of generating capacity for the remainder of the decade. 

That could change quickly. Though Trump hasn’t laid out a policy position on renewable subsidies, wind and solar have been the target of frequent ridicule from the president elect. In one speech designated for energy policy, Trump lambasted solar energy as “very expensive” and accused wind turbines of “killing all the eagles.” 

Because the renewable energy supports are already in place, revoking them would take a legislative effort. That’s a heavier lift than in the past, since many Republican officials have renewable energy facilities or manufacturing in their states, boosting support for the industry among conservative lawmakers. 

But there’s also appetite in some circles to get rid of renewable energy subsidies altogether. Some fossil fuel and nuclear generators complain that the production tax credit for wind lets these facilities to bid into the market at lower prices, pushing down electricity prices and preventing their baseload plants from competing. 

If Trump’s energy team will listen to clean energy opponents remains to be seen. The president elect has also said he is “for” renewable energy on many occasions, even while criticizing it in the next breath. But whether he opts for a full-frontal attack on wind and solar subsidies or will simply turn his attention to boosting fossil fuels, the future for renewables in a Trump administration does not look as bright as it would under a Clinton administration. 

3. Fossil fuels will likely get a boost

If Donald Trump has sent mixed messages about renewables, no one can mistake his support for fossil fuels. 

Trump made the plight of the fossil fuel worker a centerpiece of his campaign, lambasting EPA regulations he claims are “destroying our energy companies” and promising to put coal miners, oil drillers and power plant operators back to work. 

As elsewhere, the details of how Trump would do that are scant, but he has promised to increase U.S. production of oil, natural gas and coal.

Energy analysts point out that’s likely impossible, since coal’s decline in the U.S. is chiefly attributable to competition from cheap natural gas. But there are things Trump could do to open up new production areas, such as lifting restrictions on offshore drilling and fossil fuel production on federal lands. 

On the flip side, a Trump administration is likely to rebuff any environmentalist efforts to restrict domestic fossil fuel production or transport — a recent priority for green groups, which have sought to halt the expansion of oil and gas pipelines. 

Taken together, those two factors mean a much friendlier market for U.S. fossil fuel extraction and the generators that burn that fuel, even if the details are yet to be filled in. As one industry analyst told the Wall Street Journal this morning, “U.S. oil companies have a better future today than yesterday.” 

4. The paradigm of decarbonization may shatter

More important than any particular policy proposal is the paradigm shift that Trump’s election represents for the power sector. 

For the past few years — particularly since Obama’s reelection — the narrative for the future of the U.S. power sector was clear: Utilities would have to decarbonize their power plant portfolios quickly, first turning to natural gas as a bridge from coal and then ultimately to a greater reliance on renewables, energy efficiency and advanced technologies like storage. 

The Clean Power Plan underpins much of this narrative, pushing the states with the most coal power to shift to cleaner sources in the coming decades. Through those rules, the Obama administration sought to show the world the U.S. was serious about combating climate change and provide a stable policymaking environment for utilities to make investments. 

With the world’s largest economy committed to decarbonization, over 190 nations signed a landmark climate accord in Paris last year to limit global climate change to 2 degrees Centigrade this century. And not only did U.S. utilities sign on to support the CPP in court, they began using the temporary extension of wind and solar tax credits to make unprecedented investments in renewables. 

For the first time, it appeared a new climate consensus was forming — that U.S. and global policymakers not only accepted the realities of global warming, but were seeking to craft international efforts to stop it. 

Now, that consensus may be gone. Trump has said he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord and openly disavows the concept of human-caused climate change, once calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. How Trump’s election affects other nations’ decarbonization plans remains to be seen, but his disavowal of climate policy creates deep uncertainty for the power sector. 

From plants to pipelines, utility assets last for decades, meaning the investments companies make in the next few years will shape the power mix for decades to come. Under the CPP and current renewables incentives, most U.S. utilities are opting to replace retiring coal plants with wind and solar facilities.

But without those programs, the investment situation may start to look different for many utilities. Whereas Hillary Clinton was likely to build upon existing regulations on power sector pollution, the promise of less stringent rules could increase the appeal of fossil fuel assets. 

If that happens, it could scuttle any remaining chance of meeting the Paris Accord. Already this year, Oxford researchers estimated if we want to meet the 2 degree goal, “no new investment in fossil electricity infrastructure (without carbon capture) is feasible from 2017 at the latest.” Given that the transport and industrial sectors continue to increase emissions, researchers said that “2 degree capital stock” is likely already depleted. 

In other words, scientists say the world is already behind the needed trajectory of emissions reduction to meet the Paris goal, and investments in more long-lived fossil fuel assets could commit the world to see the most catastrophic consequences of climate change if they are not retired early. 

But it may not all be bad news for renewables. Wind and solar have come down precipitously in price over the past decade, and energy storage costs are declining quickly as well. Even with Trump in the White House, renewables will likely continue to enjoy strong growth and grow their portion of the U.S. power mix. 

Even if that’s the case, wind and solar growth in the U.S. can’t make up for the possible end of a global climate consensus and the enhanced appeal of fossil fuel assets at home and abroad.

Unlike political paradigms, the scientific one won’t change when Trump walks into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on January 20.

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