States, Corporate Buyers Accelerate Renewables Push
By Rich Heidorn Jr.
WASHINGTON — 2018 brought chilling warnings about the growing dangers of climate change — and seeming evidence of it in November’s Camp Fire that killed more than 80 people and destroyed almost 19,000 structures and the town of Paradise, Calif. It was the state’s most destructive wildfire on record.
A month before the fire, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying climate change could have catastrophic effects sooner than previously thought and calling for an unprecedented global response.
In November, a congressionally mandated report by the federal government predicted that if carbon emissions continue to grow at historic rates, some economic sectors will see hundreds of billions of dollars of annual losses by the end of the century — “more than the current gross domestic product of many U.S. states.”
President Trump told reporters he had read “some of” the report but didn’t believe its findings. Just two days before the report was released, he tweeted, “Brutal and extended cold blast could shatter ALL RECORDS. Whatever happened to global warming?”
Pruitt, Zinke Depart; Dems to Take House
Despite the resignations of two of the president’s most controversial cabinet members, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the administration’s efforts to reverse Obama administration policies on climate and the environment continued unabated in 2018.
In August, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, announced the replacement for the Obama Clean Power Plan. The Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule defines the “best system of emission reductions” as heat-rate efficiency improvements that can be achieved at individual coal plants, in contrast with the CPP, which set state emissions limits and encouraged switching to natural gas and renewables. Compared to the CPP, EPA said, ACE will cut electric prices by up to 0.5% in 2025 while increasing coal production for power sector use by up to 5.8%.
In December, Wheeler proposed eliminating the requirement that new coal-fired generation incorporate carbon capture technology. Given competition from lower-cost natural gas and renewables that has cut coal’s market share, it was a largely symbolic measure. EPA acknowledged no new coal-fired generating units are likely to be built in the U.S.
The Energy Information Administration said U.S. coal consumption will fall to 691 million short tons (MMst) in 2018, a 4% decline from 2017 and the lowest level since 1979. About 11 GW of coal-fired generating capacity retired in the first nine months of 2018 with another 3 GW of retirements expected in the last quarter, making the year second only to 2015 in retirements. An additional 4 GW is expected to retire by the end of 2019. (See related story Critics: CEII Rule a Trojan Horse for Coal, Nuke Bailouts.)
On Friday, EPA proposed changing its cost-benefit calculations to eliminate the “co-benefits” of reducing pollutants other than those being targeted. Had the rule been in place, EPA said, it would have prevented the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which pushed many coal generators into retirement. The Obama Administration’s EPA said although the MATS rule would cost utilities $9.6 billion a year and produce only $6 million in direct public health benefits, it was justified by co-benefits of reducing soot and nitrogen oxide, saving at least $37 billion in annual health costs and lost workdays.
A Change in the House
Democrats picked up about 40 House seats in the midterm elections, giving them control of the lower house when Congress convenes its new session Jan. 3. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who will become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has pledged “robust oversight of the Trump administration’s ongoing actions to sabotage our health care system, exacerbate climate change and weaken consumer protections.” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who will chair the Natural Resources Committee, says he will seek to elevate discussions on climate change while increasing oversight of the administration.
In the Senate, where Democrats lost two seats, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin will replace Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) as ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, although his outspoken support for coal will place him at odds with most of his party.
Progressive Democrats are pushing the idea of a Green New Deal to transition the U.S. to 100% renewable energy. Although it has no chance of passing with Trump in the White House and Republicans still controlling the Senate, advocates said it could help frame the issue for the 2020 presidential and congressional races.
“Climate change is clearly back on the table as a priority issue for the Democratic Party,” Dylan Reed, head of congressional affairs for Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) said in a year-end webinar Dec. 18.
Renewables Continue to Gain Share
Despite the Trump administration’s cheerleading of fossil fuels at home and abroad, states and businesses accelerated efforts to increase renewable generation and reduce emissions in 2018.
As of August, nonutility buyers had contracted for more than 3.5 GW of renewable energy in 2018, breaking the annual record of 3.12 GW set in 2015.
In October, the U.S. marked 1 million electric vehicles sold, with 2018 sales up more than 50% over the year before. While EVs represented only 2% of vehicles sold in 2018, electrification is being embraced more quickly in other transportation areas, with electric buses now more than 10% of new sales. State regulators approved $880 million in EV charging infrastructure in 2018 with another $1.5 billion in proposals pending, according to AEE.
The Electric Power Research Institute predicts that EVs and other electrification efforts could result in load growth of 24% to 52% by 2050.
Renewable prices continued to fall during the year.
In November, Lazard’s annual Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis found that onshore wind costs have dropped to $29-$56/MWh, with utility-scale solar at $36-$44/MWh — matching or bettering natural gas combined cycle plants at $41-$74/MWh. Coal is higher than all of them at $60-$143/MWh.
Offshore wind costs also are dropping. Vineyard Wind, an 800-MW project off the Massachusetts coast, will provide power and renewable energy credits at a levelized price of 6.5 cents/kWh in 2017 dollars. “That’s pretty much comparable to [Massachusetts’] big hydro power contract procurement at … a levelized cost of energy of 5.9 cents,” said AEE spokesman Bob Keough.
In September, California lawmakers approved legislation to get 100% of its power from renewable and other zero-carbon resources by 2045. Six other states — Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Michigan and Illinois — also are pledging to move toward a 100% clean grid, AEE said.
Missouri adopted a green tariff allowing Ameren customers to get up to 100% of their load from renewables, said J.R. Tolbert, AEE’s vice president of state policy. “This is sort of the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent,” he said. “We expect to see more green tariffs in the Midwest as a result of what happened in Missouri.”
Environmentalists fared less well at the polls in November, with voters in Arizona, Nevada and Washington rejecting initiatives following expensive campaigns.
AEE’s Reed said the Trump administration’s efforts to bail out coal power forced clean energy advocates to produce legal and financial analyses opposing the proposals. “This required a lot of time, effort and resources that could have otherwise been used to accelerate the transition” to cleaner energy, he said.