USA: Despite Clean Power Plan rollback, utilities say coal isn’t ascendant
Despite the executive order signed by President Trump this afternoon to roll back the Clean Power Plan, it’s unclear that much will change in the US for the declining coal industry. An annual survey conducted by Utility-dive and research firm PA Consulting asked 600 utility executives from around the country to answer a series of questions about how their utility is run and how it’s preparing for the future. Notably, only four percent of the respondents said that they expected to increase coal power in their energy mix moderately or significantly. Most responded that coal power would remain the same or decrease over the next 10 years. Fifty-two percent of the respondents expected coal power to “decrease significantly” in their energy mix.
The story is similar for oil, which would also benefit from a Clean Power Plan rollback. Only four percent of utility executives expected their utility to increase oil in their energy mix moderately or significantly. The majority (42 percent) expected oil to stay the same in their energy mix over the next 10 years. The rest expected oil to decrease.
Trump’s Tuesday executive order asks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw the 2014 Clean Power Plan set by the Obama Administration and put in place another, weaker set of rules governing greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Power Plan asked states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 and gave states considerable leeway in how they achieved the rule’s goals. But aging, polluting coal infrastructure would have had trouble meeting its requirements.
Since 2014, the US also saw the price of US natural gas plummet. Natural gas, of course, does emit greenhouse gases, but it’s cleaner-burning than coal.
The Trump administration has repeated that scrapping the Clean Power Plan is an economic decision aimed at bringing more jobs back to the lagging coal industry. Trump’s appointed EPA head, Scott Pruitt, told ABC on Sunday that the order would “address the past administration’s efforts to kill jobs across this country through the Clean Power Plan.”
But while jobs in oil and natural gas may benefit from the rollback of the Clean Power Plan, coal is not expected to see a similar boost. According to a January 2017 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), dramatic policies would be needed for coal to overcome the realities of economics. Although the IEEFA notes that the new Administration has offered hope of regulatory relief to the coal industry, the report suggests that the main threat to coal isn’t excessive regulation: Coal’s problem is that “too many companies are still mining too much coal for too few customers.” In 2015, 80 percent of the country’s retired capacity was coal, and in 2016 coal was hardly even considered for additional capacity.
Although the IEEFA says the coal industry will experience a short-lived bump in 2017 due to an increase in demand (and subsequent increase in price) for natural gas, the IEEFA still offers this analysis:
As pointed out earlier this morning, the CEO of coal-mining giant Murray Energy told The Guardian yesterday that he suggested Trump “temper his expectations” for a job revival in the coal industry.
Another key part of President Trump’s executive order today was a rollback of a moratorium on new coal releases on federal lands (that moratorium was instituted in January 2016). But even that may not be as impactful as the administration might hope. According to an analysis from Reuters, the coal companies with the most to gain from such a rollback, “already have enough leases in hand to last well over a decade.” Coal companies speaking to Reuters said they were happy with today’s executive order so they could access new leases down the line.
Besides coal, Utility Dive’s survey of industry executives also showed interesting trends toward other kinds of energy. Natural gas and wind saw a distribution of expectations inverse to that of coal. Eleven percent of survey respondents expected natural gas energy to decrease moderately or significantly, while 64 percent expected natural gas to increase moderately or significantly in the energy mix. Only five percent of respondents expected their wind energy mix to decrease moderately or significantly, while 48 percent expected wind to increase moderately. Twenty-three percent expected wind power to increase significantly in their utility’s power mix.
Utility executives actually expected to see utility-grade and distributed solar increase in their energy mix most consistently. Eighty-two percent thought utility-scale solar would increase moderately or significantly, with only three percent answering that solar would decrease in their energy mix in the next 10 years. Eighty-three percent said distributed generation—or solar from rooftops that is sold back to utilities—would increase moderately or significantly.
This seems consistent with historical trends, too. In 2016, solar was the leading source of new capacity on the grid.
But lest you think that those utility executives are favouring natural gas, wind, and solar out of the kindness of their hearts, consider that this may be an economic decision instead, divorced from their ideals about the politics of utility regulation. Those same respondents may have been pleased with today’s executive order to review the Clean Power Plan; the Utility Dive survey showed that only 34 percent of utility executives were in favour of maintaining the status quo or increasing emissions standards and renewable energy support. Forty-two percent were in favour of some form of cap-and-trade system or carbon tax, and a full 25 percent of respondents thought the US shouldn’t pursue a decarbonisation policy whatsoever.