If you get caught up in the headlines about the Trump administration’s energy policies, you might envision a nightmare of fuming smokestacks, billowing cooling towers and fat coal trains lumbering toward the horizon.
After all, President Trump wants to dismantle President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut carbon pollution from fossil-fuel generating plants, mostly coal. And to lead a wrecking crew at the Environmental Protection Administration, he appointed Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General who famously sued the EPA 14 times and has said the United States should pull out of the Paris climate accords.
But wait a second.
Utility Vision is Clear: Renewables, Gas, Smart Grid
If you ask the people who run the nation’s utility companies, they’ll tell you a different story. Their vision includes solar panels, wind turbines and natural gas pipelines. And a grid that increasingly runs like the internet, with two-way power flows and communications technologies that leverage networked thermostats, water heaters, plugged-in electric vehicles, batteries and backup generators.
Their vision does not include new coal or nuclear. U.S. utilities expect to shutter or convert more than 8,000 megawatts of coal-fired plants in 2017 after closing almost 13,000 MW last year, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. Five big nuclear power plants have been prematurely retired since 2013, with another seven plants due to close before their license expires.
To be sure, if they are already running coal-fired or nuclear-fission plants, they’d like to keep them running as long as they can earn a return on their investments through electricity rates. But none of them plans to build a baseload coal or nuclear plant anytime soon. Or ever. When Reuters surveyed 32 utilities with coal plants after the president announce his executives order to “end the war on coal,” most said Trump’s order would not sway their shift away from coal.
This is all detailed in the latest survey of electric utility leaders from Utility Dive. Released on March 28, the publisher’s fourth annual State of the Electric Utility report’s most startling conclusion is perhaps that there are no surprising changes expected from the nation’s utilities. “Utilities still overwhelmingly expect to add more renewables and gas, retire baseload generators and reform their business models to suit the new energy economy,” the report’s authors said.
More solar, DERs, wind and gas
In addition to the takeaway that utility executives don't expect to change their plans to align with Trump’s policies, its key findings:
- The top issues of immediate importance to utilities are physical and cyber security, distributed energy policy, aging grid infrastructure, and reliable integration of renewable and distributed energy resources.
- Utilities are upbeat about the prospects for more utility-scale solar, distributed energy resources, wind energy and natural gas generation over the next decade.
- Utility executives generally are optimistic about the growth of solar, demand-side management and behind-the-meter storage.
You can download the full report here.
Top reasons for investing in clean energy
Solar and wind power have moved into the mainstream. No better manifestation of this outlook are the attitudes of utility executives toward investing in renewables.
Utility Dive asked respondents to choose the most compelling reason to invest in clean energy technologies. I figured that hard-headed business people would have chosen an economic argument. In fact, the top reason given was consumer sentiment toward clean energy. In other words, if customers want it (and they do), they want it, too.
Here’s how the answers for why to invest in renewables broke down:
- 20% consumer sentiment toward clean energy
- 19% sustainability
- 17% renewable energy targets or mandates
- 15% low/declining prices
- 11% earnings growth and business model evolution
- 8% no compelling reason to invest in clean energy
- 7% hedge against fossil fuel prices
- 5% emissions standards
Looking past Trump
Again and again, the answers throughout the report run counter to the stated aims of the Trump administration. If this seems surprising, consider that utilities’ planning horizons typically look out 10 to 20 years into the future. So they’re considering investment decisions that will far outlive the current administration.
Plus, federal energy policies exert less influence on utilities’ business models than do state policies. As Utility Dive points out, states like California, New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii are planning sweeping new changes to how utilities operate, invest and earn profits. These changes, along with economic, societal and environmental forces, will do more to direct the course of future change.
So while you (as I) may cringe when Scott Pruitt says human activity (i.e., burning fossil fuels) is not “… a primary contributor” to climate change, take heart that bigger forces are at work. As Utility Dive concluded, “If anything, our 2017 survey shows a sector transitioning toward a cleaner energy future more steadily than ever before.”