Sunday, June 24, 2018

Cost Trends Favor Renewables Despite Coming Policy Shifts

By Rich Heidorn Jr.

President-elect Donald Trump may trash the Clean Power Plan and walk away from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Congress may undo the coal mining and fracking regulations the Obama administration issued on its way out the door. Rick Perry may neuter the climate scientists in the Department of Energy.

But while President Obama’s energy legacy is uncertain, there appears no reversing the generation shifts that have occurred since his first election in 2008.

Cheap natural gas and the falling cost of solar and wind power are likely to continue driving electric industry investments over the next four years regardless of whether the Trump administration is able to reverse Obama-era federal policies. And as they have in the face of Congressional inaction over climate change, many states will continue their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Renewables produced 17% of electricity generation in the first half of 2016, up from 9% in all of 2008.

Natural gas added 70.1 GW of capacity between 2008 and 2015, 42% of the total, according to a report by the American Public Power Association. Wind was second with almost 56 GW (33%), while solar added 13 GW (7.8%). Coal added 19.1 GW (11.4%) of new capacity but also retired 42.9 GW over that period for a net reduction of 23.8 GW.

New Bosses for Federal Agencies

It’s clear that environmentalists will be playing defense for the next four years.

Trump’s nominees for cabinet posts, including fellow climate change skeptics Rick Perry as secretary of energy and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator, are certain to face tough questions at their confirmation hearings, but the out-of-power Democrats will be unable to block them by themselves. Because of Democrats’ change of the Senate filibuster rule in 2013, Trump will need only a simple majority in the upper house to win approval for any administration position or any judge excluding the Supreme Court — not the 60 votes to end debate as before.

renewable power

How much Trump’s appointees will try to turn back the clock is uncertain. While Perry and Pruitt have joined Trump in rejecting a scientific consensus that carbon emissions are warming the planet, Trump claimed after the election to have an “open mind” on the issue. (See Trump Sends Conflicting Signals on Climate Change.)

Perry, who had called for the Energy Department’s abolition as a presidential candidate, will be expected by Republicans to sharply reduce its spending, particularly the controversial loan guarantee program. But the department also has supported carbon-capture projects essential to making “clean coal” more than a slogan. And while Perry was a friend to the oil and gas industry as Texas governor, he also presided over the state’s transmission buildout to support its wealth of wind power.


Although FERC has not traditionally been marked by partisan divisions, the agency will be reshaped by Trump’s election with Commissioner Norman Bay, a Democrat, likely to lose the chairmanship to a Republican. Commissioner Colette Honorable also is likely be replaced by a Republican after her term expires in June. The five-member commission has been all Democrats since the departures of Republicans Philip Moeller and Tony Clark. The president gets to appoint members of his party to three of the five seats and pick the chairmanship. (See CPP, FERC’s Bay, Honorable Among Losers in Trump Win.)

Because Republicans maintained their control of the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) will remain chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the gatekeeper for FERC nominees.

Clean Power Plan

Pruitt is expected to lead the effort to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, though it’s uncertain how the new administration will accomplish its goal. (See CPP, FERC’s Bay, Honorable Among Losers in Trump Win.)

One question is whether the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on legal challenges to the rule in September, will act before Trump is sworn in. (See Analysis: No Knock Out Blow for Clean Power Plan Foes in Court Arguments.)

Last month, state attorneys general from West Virginia and other anti-CPP states suggested Trump immediately issue an executive order directing EPA not to enforce the rule. Their counterparts from states supporting the CPP have vowed to fight a move to remand the CPP back to EPA before a court ruling.

State, Corporate Actions

Regardless of what happens with the CPP, utilities, major corporations and some states are likely to continue their efforts at decarbonizing the generation mix.

D.C. and several states increased their renewable portfolio standards in 2016: D.C. (50% by 2032); Oregon (50% by 2040); Rhode Island (38.5% by 2035); and New York (50% by 2030). In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich last month vetoed a bill that would have made its RPS (12.5% by 2025) voluntary, saying the bill “amounts to self-inflicted damage to both our state’s near- and long-term economic competitiveness.”

renewable power

According to the American Wind Energy Association, more than 80 companies, including General Motors, Amazon and Microsoft, have pledged to move to 100% renewable power. In addition to the “halo effect” of promoting their green credentials, the companies are also motivated by costs. For example, storage and information management company Iron Mountain signed a 15-year power purchase agreement for wind last year that it says will save it up to $500,000 in power costs annually.

Even some of the nation’s biggest coal-burning utilities are shuttering coal-fired plants and replacing them with natural gas and renewables.  In announcing its third quarter earnings in November, for example, American Electric Power said it would add 5,400 MW of wind and 3,400 MW of solar power through 2033 through long-term PPAs (along with 3,000 MW of natural gas).  No new coal.

Below is a status report on the changing generation mix since 2008 and prospects for the future.


2016 was a watershed year for solar, which for the first time will be the No. 1 source of new generation, according to the Energy Information Administration. EIA reported that the U.S. added more than 26 GW of utility-scale capacity last year, with solar (9.5 GW), natural gas (8 GW), and wind (6.8 GW) responsible for 93%. There were no new coal plants.

The U.S. trends are representative of those worldwide. Solar PV prices have fallen by about 70% since 2010 and are now cheaper than wind, natural gas or coal in emerging markets, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in December. In August, a contract in Chile priced at $29.10/MWh, about half the cost of coal.

BNEF says worldwide fossil-fuel use for electricity may peak within the next decade. “Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices, BNEF chairman Michael Liebreich said.


U.S. nameplate wind capacity has tripled to more than 75 GW since 2008.

SPP and ERCOT broke wind generation records repeatedly through 2016, and SPP says it could manage wind penetration of 60%. (See related stories, SPP Seeks to Manage Wind Riches, Improve Order 1000 Process and ERCOT Looks to Incorporate DG, Improve Ancillary Services, RMR in 2017.)

The first offshore wind farm, the 30-MW Deepwater Wind farm off Block Island, R.I., went into commercial operation in October.

Although offshore wind remains more than twice as expensive as land-based turbines, costs are expected to drop with more development and production economies. Massachusetts lawmakers have authorized the purchase of 1,600 MW of offshore wind by 2027. (See Massachusetts Bill Boosts Offshore Wind, Canadian Hydro.)

Last month, Norway’s Statoil bid $42.5 million for the right to develop almost 80,000 acres off Long Island, enough space to install up to 1 GW of turbines. The company said it will initially develop 400 to 600 MW. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has now leased more than 1.2 million acres and plans another lease auction off North Carolina in 2017.


Trump’s promises to “save” the coal industry won him votes in Appalachia, but there is scant evidence that any policy shift will bring jobs there.

Attorneys at LeClairRyan say Trump’s promise to remove the Obama administration’s moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands will help producers in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

Congressional Republicans are likely to invoke the Congressional Review Act in a bid to reverse the Interior Department’s Dec. 19 rule requiring coal companies to restore their land to its condition before mining began, an effort to prevent mining debris from contaminating streams. The act, which has only been used once in the past, could target any regulations finalized after May 30, according to the Congressional Research Service. (Also at risk of a CRA reversal is a Nov. 15 Interior rule requiring oil and gas producers to use “currently available technologies and processes” to cut methane flaring in half at oil and gas wells on federal and Native American lands.)

But none of these policy changes will be enough to reverse coal’s decline.

U.S. coal production is its lowest in three decades and three of the country’s biggest producers, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, have filed for bankruptcy.

More than 21 GW of coal generation retired in 2015 and 2016, largely as result of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and EIA says another 14 GW is at risk of retirement by the end of 2028.

Nor is growth likely to come from exports, which fell for the third consecutive year in 2015. Through September 2016, exports dropped another 30% below the previous year.

The International Energy Agency predicts exports will continue to decline due to reduced demand from China and low-cost foreign supplies.

Prospects for new plants are fanciful. The levelized cost of a new coal generator with carbon sequestration — required under EPA rules finalized in 2015 — is about double the cost of new solar PV and wind, according to EIA.

Natural Gas

Coal has suffered from lower natural gas prices as well as competition from renewables. Since June 2008, Henry Hub prices have fallen from $12.69/MMBtu to an average of $2.49/MMBtu in 2016.

EIA said in December that natural gas production averaged 77.5 Bcfd in 2016, a drop of 1.3 Bcfd, and the first annual decline since 2005. EIA predicts production will rebound by 2.5 Bcfd in 2018.

Citing rising domestic demand, and increasing exports to Mexico and via LNG, EIA sees Henry Hub spot prices rising to $3.27/MMBtu in 2017.

EPA’s December report that improper fracking practices can cause groundwater contamination was blasted by industry and is unlikely to persuade the Trump administration to initiate tougher federal regulations. But it may provide ammunition for tougher state regulations that could increase production costs. (See EPA: Poor Fracking Practices Have Harmed Drinking Water.) Maryland is considering replacing a moratorium against fracking with regulations that industry says would be the most restrictive in the country.


The nuclear industry, which has seen five plants retire in the last five years, celebrated some wins in 2016, as state policymakers in New York and Illinois approved zero-emission credits to keep plants operating and the Tennessee Valley Authority completed its long delayed Watts Bar 2 nuclear plant.

Watts Bar 2 dedication | TVA

But nobody is talking any longer about a nuclear power “renaissance.”

The 1,150-MW Watts Bar 2 went into service in October, completing a project begun in 1973 and mothballed for decades.

Like Southern Co.’s Vogtle and SCANA’s V.C. Summer nuclear plants under construction, the TVA project was marked by the same kind of delays and massive cost overruns that stopped new plant construction following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

Fort Calhoun | NEI

The latest nuclear plant to go dark was the Fort Calhoun plant near Omaha, Neb. — at 478 MW the smallest in the U.S. — which closed in October, citing economic reasons. Fort Calhoun’s output is expected to be replaced by wind and natural gas.

State-backed ZECs may save the Clinton, Quad Cities (Illinois) and James A. FitzPatrick (New York) plants from imminent retirement, assuming the initiatives survive court challenges. But there will be no preventing the retirements of Oyster Creek (2019), Pilgrim (2019) or Diablo Canyon (2025).

In addition to cheerleading the state-backed ZECs, the Nuclear Energy Institute has launched an initiative to spread use of best practices to make the industry more compatible. NEI said the first year of its “Delivering the Nuclear Promise” identified more than $600 million in projected savings in 2016.

“Effecting an overall change in mindsets and culture is a huge undertaking but absolutely indispensable to the survival and success of our industry,” NEI Chief Operating Officer Maria Korsnick said. “We value the importance of safety and reliability and, while we maintain the high levels we have achieved, we also can focus on improving efficiency.”

1 Comment

  1. Todd Lee on January 3, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    There are significant difference in generating capacity and actual generation. Comparing APPA capacity data to EIA generation data for 2015:

    APPA Capacity%/EIA 2015 Generation%
    Coal: 26.0%/33.2%
    Natural Gas: 42.7%/32.7%
    Nuclear: 9.1%/19.6%
    Solar: 1.2%/1.0%
    Wind: 6.2%/4.7%
    Hydro: 8.5%/6.1%

    Looks like coal and nuclear are the preferred day to day production options as they are producing much more than their percentage of generating capacity.

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