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Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard S. Hyman is an economist and financial analyst specializing in the energy sector. He headed utility equity research at a major brokerage house and…

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Can Trump Change The Direction Of U.S. Energy?


The missing document might be titled “Trump's Electricity Policy Will Make America Great Again." Donald Trump, the GOP's presumptive Presidential nominee, has a utility policy. Needless to say it may have consequences. Finding it just requires some reading between the lines.

Mr. Trump’s major presentation on energy, “An America First Energy Plan”, delivered in North Dakota the other day contained these basic ideas:

1) Less environmental regulation, less government interference, and cut EPA funding;
2) Build the Keystone XL Pipeline;
3) Declare “American energy dominance,” eliminate oil exports from OPEC and other so-
called "hostile” nations;
4) Save the coal industry;
5) Use “revenues from energy production” to fund infrastructure investment.

Except for that last liberal nostrum about infrastructure, Mr. Trump's four points accurately summarize conventional Republican Party energy policy. The benefits of these policies had been conveniently quantified by a think tank noted for connections to the fossil fuel industry. Mr. Trump made one neo-Hayekian observation but gave away the game at the end:

“We will get the bureaucracy out of the way … so we can pursue all forms of energy… The
government should not pick winners and losers. Instead it should remove obstacles to exploration.”

The last word says it all. The best solution is to find more conventional fossil fuel resources. This solution has been the standard in Republican circles at least since the end of the Second World War. Mr. Trump's electricity policy, as derived from Republican energy policy, is predictable though not overtly stated.

Diluting or abandoning existing and contemplated environmental standards will let loose countervailing forces. Abandonment of clean air and greenhouse gas restrictions will lessen pressure on electric generators to retire old coal-fired power plants. But that will not be adequate to encourage construction of new coal-fired power plants. They require too much up front capital and have higher total levelized costs per kwh produced than gas-fired stations (see Table 1).

That brings us to fracking, whose costs might rise if subject to strict environmental regulation, especially in regard to methane emissions. Coal consumption has fallen because coal cannot compete successfully with natural gas at current prices. Relaxing environmental regulation of natural gas will simply perpetuate gas’s competitive edge.

Since Trump, like many Republicans, is skeptical about global warming, his administration might eliminate renewable subsidies. This would slow the growth of renewables, but probably not stop it altogether. Renewable mandates are set by individual states and some renewables (as they approach grid parity especially in higher cost regions) are cost competitive even without federal subsidies.

Note: Data from EIA sources. Construction costs for 2013 plant. Levelized cost in 2013 $ for plant entering service 2020. Related: Russia’s Oil Giants Feel The Crunch But Stay In The Black

Power plants, of course, take time to permit, site and build. The industry has already committed to a significant percentage of the generating stations it will put into service over the two possible terms of a Trump Presidency no matter what policy emerges. As seen in Table 2, natural gas will fuel roughly 45 percent of new capacity and renewables another 45 percent. The gas covers the base load and reliability needs and the renewables dampen the carbon emissions while costing roughly the same as power from a conventional coal station. The future is here: natural gas and wind, mostly on-shore.

Oddly enough, ending the renewable boom might not please many electric utilities. It could deprive them of opportunities in the only dynamic, growing sector of the business, investing in renewable resources and in transmission lines that bring renewable energy to load centers and in clean power stations to replace old (and written off) dirty ones. Keeping old stations in operation might also take pressure off reserve margins in certain regions (thereby both lowering profit opportunities for independent generators and investment opportunities for transmission builders).

(Click to enlarge)

Note: Data from Nuclear Energy Institute. Related: Oil Refining Capacity Set To Surge, But Can It Boost Oil Prices?


On the whole, the Trump/Republican electricity program will add a few years to the operating lives of old coal-fired stations. This could give the coal industry a temporary reprieve. It would also deny utilities a few attractive business opportunities and dim the appeal of (presently above market) expensive renewables.

But it will do little to encourage new coal-fired stations and will do nothing for nuclear. At present the chief attraction of nuclear, despite its cost, is its minimal carbon emissions. This holds little appeal since Mr. Trump, like others in his party, apparently does not believe in anthropogenic or global climate change.

By Leonard S.Hyman and William I. Tilles for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Tom-Scott Gordon on June 14 2016 said:
    I'm 100% for Trump vs Hillary in the political sphere. He thinks on his feet and is beholden to none of the usual pre-determined players. Our systems are completely broken and he's offering a real shot at shaking TPTB's pyramidal winner-take-all NWO tree.

    Donald does not have any handle on energy or engineering, gas, renewables or oil, only the game of manipulative negotiating.

    His buildings are among the ugliest and most contextually irrelevant structures in the world. His uncelebrated 'architects' among the world's worst. But, we all need to let the past speak for itself. De-centralization is not wholly possible. Micro-systems are the solution, not more of the same, only "leaner."

    It should not take an Oklahoman to explain why it is unwise to frack off the soast of Southern California.
  • JHM on June 15 2016 said:
    The author is using painfully out of date estimates of levelized costs. Utility scales PV solar (unsubsidized) is now about $1.33/W and under 4c/kWh. Wind is also below 3c/kWh. So no, new coal cannot compete can the price of fuels are capped at about $4/mmbtu for all existing plants. That is, the cost of renewables is dropping below the cost of fuel in geriatric power plants, so they serve no economic purpose.

    There is nothing Mr. Trump or any other politician can do to save the coal industry short of taxpayer bailouts and subsidies for energy that is not needed, pollutes and stands in the way of addressing climate change. The fossil fuel industry should not be put on public assistance. Rather, the economic forces of creative destruction should be allowed to clear the way for cheaper and clean renewable energy.

    Keeping coal on life support also risks that more of the cost of mine rehabilitation and plant decommissioning will be shifted to taxpayers. Just watch, the coal producers and utilities will come hat in hand to politicians to get public funds to close down their operations. We don't need Trump to "save" the coal industry. That would only shift massive costs from investors to taxpayers.
  • neg_entropy on June 15 2016 said:
    EIA's numbers for solar PV are a long running joke. Except that they so consistently overstate the cost of solar PV that one wonders if incompetence has given way to outright deception. Current PPAs for utility scale solar PV are already less than HALF the 12.5 cents per kWh list above.

    KXL is already redundant and coal is too far gone to save. The only thing that is truly disturbing is cuts, FURTHER cuts to the EPA. The oil majors and utilities already know how to pressure State level legislatures into giving them whatever they want. Not good.
  • HocusLocus on June 16 2016 said:
    Regarding electricity... once the last nuclear plant is shut, then the last coal station closed, by investors who are excited that gas is so cheap (today! forever! Let's export it too! forever!) and in the case of nuclear, want to trigger the decommissioning process... not a single person in this capitalist enterprise plants a dime on the table as collateral on *survival*. So in the place of coal railroad cars useless to terrorists and a few extremely well-secured nuclear plants, we're going to put the whole shebang, our whole modern civilization, at the mercy of a terrestrial high pressure natural gas network. Yup.

    Those gas-plant pushing folks, and I include the faux utility engineers pushing irreliables like wind and solar, don't put a penny on survival either.

    I'm hoping for a President who will start a dialog with Congress on self-sufficiency and exert such influence as possible (esp w/EPA) to level the field among ALL of our reliable base load sources. Because loss of any one of those is a clear and present danger to National Security. See, I did that without mentioning money at all!

    Advocates of building out gas to the exclusion of all else like to imagine that every blazing fireball is an accident and a few will happen by accident, per decade. How about 20-50 in one day?

    I realize I'm being a bit aggressive but thanks for listening.

Leave a comment

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