Monday, February 18, 2019

FirstEnergy CEO Says Country Heading for Natural Gas ‘Disaster’

By Peter Key

Speaking in apocalyptic terms, FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones said Friday that he thinks the “country is heading for a disaster” because of its over-reliance on natural gas for generating power.

In response to a question during FirstEnergy’s second-quarter earnings conference call, Jones said one type of disaster “could be a national security type of issue. We are taking the most sophisticated bulk electric system that exists anywhere in this world and putting it on top of a bulk gas system that is very unsophisticated, and that sets up security risks if there were ever an attack on that bulk gas system.”

FirstEnergy chuck jones earnings

Jones | First Energy

The other type of disaster, he said, could be economic. “We are getting to where we are relying too much on one fuel source for the generation of electricity, and I think fuel diversity is critical to keeping economic stability. With where gas is priced now, if anything happens to cause that gas price to go up again and create a volatility in the gas markets, the volatility in electric markets is going to be so great that I don’t think industry in our country is going to be able to tolerate it.”

There’s no doubt that cheap gas has been disastrous competition for FirstEnergy’s aging merchant generation fleet. The company lost $1.1 billion in the second quarter of last year, largely because of the closure of five uneconomic coal plants. The company earned $174 million ($0.39/share) on revenue of $3.3 billion in 2017’s second quarter.

FirstEnergy plans to exit the competitive generation business and focus on its regulated utility operations by selling its generation units or getting them classified as regulated assets on which it is guaranteed a rate of return. The company’s FirstEnergy Solutions (FES) subsidiary owns 15 power plants, including three that use nuclear fuel and four that are coal-fired, and low natural-gas and falling renewable energy prices have battered it so badly that Jones has considered having it file for bankruptcy protection. (See FirstEnergy Wants out of Competitive Generation.)

In last week’s earnings conference call, Jones said FES will be talking with a group that says it represents more than 80% of the unit’s creditors and that he will be taking part in the conversation. Jones said the group called FES and “outlined a formula for a potential discussion that was interesting enough that FES decided it was worth pursuing.”

“I think we always knew this was going to happen at some point in time,” Jones said. “I think it is clearly the preferred route if we end up in a bankruptcy proceeding with FES to do it through a structured settlement that all parties are comfortable with.”

FES has done some settling already. In April, the company agreed to pay $109 million to settle a legal dispute with two railroads concerning coal transportation contracts that the company said it should have been allowed to exit because it was forced by new environmental regulations to close some of the plants to which the railroads delivered. Jones said FirstEnergy is talking to one of those railroads and another one concerning a different dispute and remains “optimistic that a settlement can be reached.”

FirstEnergy has tried to persuade Ohio legislators and regulators to treat its power plants as rate-base units but hasn’t been successful. It also tried to get Ohio regulators to give it a subsidy of $4.46 billion over eight years, but they only gave it $612 million over three years. (See PUCO Rejects FirstEnergy’s $558M Rider, OKs $132.5M.)

Even though it’s getting out of competitive generation, Jones said FirstEnergy will continue to press for subsidies to allow nuclear plants in competitive generation markets to continue operating. Ohio was considering legislation that would set up a zero-emission nuclear (ZEN) resource program similar to the zero-emission credit (ZEC) programs established to funnel money to nuclear plants in New York and Illinois.

“I am going to continue to fight for this ZEN legislation because it is the right thing to do for the state of Ohio; it’s the right thing to do for those assets,” Jones said. “It gives those assets the best chance of running under new owners.”

Jones also said FirstEnergy is looking forward to the release of the Department of Energy study of electrical markets and reliability, which, he said, “is expected to address economic and security risks associated with the premature closure of the nation’s fuel-secure baseload generation as a result of regulations, subsidies and tax policies.”

“We’re optimistic that the final DOE study … could offer solutions to address this national concern. And the FES board is closely following this effort, which is expected to help them determine the right path forward for FES.”