Electric Utilities Ignoring Trump's Changes To Climate Policy

American electric companies are keeping a close watch on President Trump's unraveling of Obama Administration climate and clean-energy policies, but they do not appear to be changing course because of it.
Utilities are holding fast to a clean-energy trajectory because of a suite of other influences, including low prices for wind and solar energy, international climate efforts, public relations, and the possibility that Trump's actions will be overturned in court or by a subsequent president.
Some Obama veterans have taken heart.
"In terms of actual behavior in the power sector, they’re looking beyond the legal fight that is going to tie things up over the next couple of years and anticipating that they’re going to be operating in an environment with more constrained regulation going forward," said Brian Deese, who served as senior advisor to Obama on climate and energy.
"So the near-term effect of eliminating all these regulations is not all that clear."
Deese has an obvious stake in the game, but there's no need to take his word for it. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade organization that represents the nation's publicly-owned utilities, has continued to navigate toward the star it was following in the Obama years. The latest issue of its magazine, Electric Perspectives, features a cover story titled "The Link To A Better, Cleaner Tomorrow."
"Our commitment to be active stewards of the environment has led us to diversify, creating a portfolio of assets and business initiatives that involve both the reduction of coal generation and the integration of wind, solar, and natural gas," writes the author, Barry V. Parry, CEO of the energy company Fortis Inc.
In the magazine's house column, EEI vice president Brian L. Wolff looks forward to Trump's promised investment in infrastructure, but envisions that investment furthering goals that sound decidedly like priorities of the prior administration—"such as energy storage, micro-grids, electric vehicles, and other devices in our homes and businesses." He advocates smart technologies and writes that "distributed energy resources—such as solar, wind, natural gas units, electric vehicles, energy storage, and energy management technologies connected by the energy grid—help cities become more efficient and more sustainable."
Other headlines in the magazine feature electric vehicle programs—a potential moneymaker for utilities—and praise an executive for "clean-energy leadership."
Electric utilities have welcomed some of Trump's policies. In addition to his call for infrastructure investment, utilities stand to save money if he successfully rolls back Obama's Waters of the U.S. Rule, which EEI is challenging in the courts. It would require utilities and other companies to take additional steps to protect streams and wetlands.
The Clean Power Plan would shift utilities toward cleaner sources of fuel. It has a mixed reputation with utilities, depending somewhat on what fuel they burn, but in February, EEI released an industry-outlook statement to Wall Street that sounded at least as resistant to Trump as to the Clean Power Plan:
"With regard to the Clean Power Plan, it is important to remember that, regardless of the rule’s ultimate fate, companies and states are transitioning their generation assets due to market and economic reasons. We intend to work with the new Administration, Congress, states, and other stakeholders to ensure that our companies are able to use resources that are most cost-effective and that provide a range of new energy and technology options our customers want."
Lawrence Jones, who heads EEI's international programs, suggests American utilities are aligning more with global influences.
"The electric power industry is leading unprecedented change that is rooted in the broader transformation of the global energy system," he writes in Electric Perspectives.
"This process is driven by several common forces: the growth of new technologies; government policies and regulation; and changing customer expectations. Customers want more choices and greater control over their energy use, and companies are working to deliver that future while enhancing reliability and affordability."
Where customers want climate action, some utilities are making their positions political and public. In January, California's Pacific Gas & Electric Co. joined a petition urging Trump to fight climate change.
"As a utility, we are a critical infrastructure, so we make big investments in our system,” Melissa Lavinson, PG&E's chief sustainability officer, told the Guardian. “Climate change can impact our ability to safely, affordably and reliably serve our customers. For example, more heat waves mean more cooling days, and sea level rise can affect coastal infrastructure. So for us, taking action on climate change is very important.”
And for Brian Deese, events like these demonstrate that Obama's climate legacy is more resilient than it may appear.
"The headlines associated with this administration's approach suggest that with the stroke of a pen they can eliminate all of this, all of the rules, and all of the industry behavior associated with those," Deese said in an appearance Tuesday at the University of Chicago, sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago.
The electric-power industry may not be the only industry looking beyond Trump, Deese added.
Although carmakers welcomed Trump's willingness to relax fuel-efficiency standards, they also seem to be anticipating a world beyond Trump in which cars will have to be more efficient, Deese said, "because it turns out that California and other states actually have a lot of leverage embedded in their authorities under the Clean Air Act to have a say in what fuel economy standards are."

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