Trump Nixes Clean Power Plan, Gas and Solar Still Rule

Natural gas turbine at Dominion’s Greensville power plant. President Trump might have ended the regulatory “war on coal,” but he can’t change fundamental economics, which still favor gas and solar.

President Trump has never hidden his dislike of his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, which would have required the 50 states to order their electric utilities to curtail carbon dioxide emissions in the cause of combating global warming. Nine months into the Trump administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt finally has announced formal steps to repeal the plan. Reports the New York Times:

“The War on coal is over,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C. I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan.” …

Mr. Pruitt’s proposal for repeal will now have to go through a formal public-comment period before being finalized, a process that could take months. Mr. Pruitt will also ask the public for comment on what a replacement rule would look like, but the E.P.A. has not offered a timeline.

Admittedly, the regulatory battle is far from over. “Environmental groups and Democratic-controlled states are expected to challenge these rules on multiple fronts,” says the Times. Moreover, there is nothing to stop individual states from implementing tough CO2 standards on their own initiative. Indeed, here in Virginia, the McAuliffe administration has vowed to boost Virginia’s commitment to renewable energy.

But a rollback of the Clean Power Plan won’t change market fundamentals. Just as the natural gas fracking revolution led to natural gas displacing coal over the past decade, market forces will dictate that renewable energy assume an increasing role in the decade ahead — regardless of whether states set CO2 emission caps or not.

In its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion Virginia Energy has laid out its vision for the energy future that calls for increased natural gas and renewable energy. Under its least-cost regulatory scenario, which looks increasingly likely, Dominion won’t build any new coal- or nuclear-powered plants. It will renew licenses for its existing nuclear units but will not build a third unit at its North Anna Power Station, which by some estimates would cost $18 billion or more. The utility will build new gas-powered plants to provide base-load capacity, supplemented by a mix of solar (up to 5,200 megawatts capacity) and gas-fired combustion turbines that can quickly ramp up and down in response to volatile solar output. (Since publication of the IRP, Dominion has demonstrated a keen interest in building a pumped storage facility in Southwest Virginia, which could eliminate the need for some natural gas combustion-turbine units, but the economics of such a scheme have not been fully explored.)

Meanwhile, environmental groups have been pushing aggressively for a future electric grid dominated by renewable electricity, using energy efficiency to reduce demand and battery storage to even out fluctuations in solar output. The greens are opposed not only to building a third nuclear unit at North Anna but to re-licensing the existing units, creating a void that would have to be filled by some power source other than coal. The greens also oppose construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Dominion co-owns and is counting on to supply its growing fleet of natural gas base-load and combustion-turbine plants. The environmentalists are lobbying for essentially the same power mix advocated by their Green Party counterparts in Europe.

German energy policy: not working out as planned.

Interestingly, the New York Times published an article two days ago highlighting how Germany’s shift to green power has stalled. Since 2000 Germany has spent an estimated 189 billion euros, or about $222 billion, on renewable energy subsidies with the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Ironically, CO2 emissions have remained stuck at 2009 levels, even as the shift to natural gas has allowed the U.S. to reduce its CO2 output. As the retail cost of electric power has doubled since 2000 with little progress on the CO2 front to show for it, large blocs of the German electorate are getting fed up.

“Julian Hermneuwöhner is one such voter,” the Times reports. “Mr. Hermneuwöhner, a 27-year-old computer science student, said his family paid an additional €800 a year because of Energiewende.”

Germany obtains about one-third of its electricity from wind and solar, about double the rate for the U.S. But a decision after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan prompted the Germans to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power. The only other energy source available: coal. A doubling of electricity rates and no reduction in CO2 is not a winning electoral combination.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union still supports Energiewende, the shift to renewables, but two important parties, the pro-business Free Liberals and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, do not.

Bacon’s bottom line: If I were a betting man, I would wager that Virginia’s mid-term energy future will be dominated by gas and solar. Wind power will remain a niche contributor unless off-shore wind comes into play a decade or more from now. The North Anna 3 nuclear unit will never be built, although Dominion will succeed over furious opposition in re-licensing its existing Surry and North Anna units. The utility will keep its existing coal-fired units in operation through their design life-times. But all the expansion in capacity will come from gas and solar.

And, yes, Dominion will need to expand capacity, even as energy efficiency dampens electricity demand nationally. The recent announcement of the new Facebook data center in Henrico County demonstrates another side of Virginia’s energy future. That single server farm will consume as much electricity as 32,500 homes. Virginia is highly competitive in the data-center industry, and it could add dozens or more data centers in the next two decades. Other states might experience declining demand for electricity, but as long as data centers represent one of Virginia’s great hopes for economic development, electricity demand will continue to grow.

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17 responses to “Trump Nixes Clean Power Plan, Gas and Solar Still Rule

  1. “Germany obtains about one-third of its electricity from wind and solar, about double the rate for the U.S.”

    What? Wait. I thought America today got o.9% of its electricity from solar. And 5.6% of its electricity today from Wind.

    “If I were a betting man, I would wager that Virginia’s mid-term energy future will be dominated by gas and solar …The recent announcement of the new Facebook data center in Henrico County demonstrates another side of Virginia’s energy future. That single server farm will consume as much electricity as 32,500 homes.”

    What? Wait.

    Would not the Facebook data center consume then roughly 1, 450 acres of land covered with solar panels to power this one data center, or more depending on solar farms distance from site? That assumes 197 megawatts of power consuming 7.5 acres per megawatt. Is that roughly correct?

    And is waging war on an industry, say coal, a proper regulatory act?

    • Here is baseline for discussing one problem with solar. The statistics used for the current siting of utility solar projects are those of California, given the fact that California has the most mature and highly developed solar grid.

      There in California as of late 2015 less than 15% of the state’s solar power was generated in “developed areas.” This was a highly inefficient use of land resources given that studies alleged to show the the states developed areas, if properly developed, would generate “California’s energy demands three to five times over”, using “areas already affected by humans, such as land fills, over parking lots, and on roof tops nearest to places where energy is consumed.”

      This would greatly reduce the adverse environmental impact of utility size solar farms. For now these solar farms as built to date in California needlessly consume the states farm and pasturage land, its scrub lands, and its other naturally open lands, that are needed for the health of the earth, its fauna, flora, and its weather, water, air, and view shed quality. Not least, those open lands are lands on which the health and well being of California’s citizens depend.

      The fact that more that 85% of California’s utility solar farms were sited and built outside its developed areas compounded the degradation and waste of vast swaths of lands within the state because many of these areas, remote from from consumer usage, require the building of vast amounts of otherwise unnecessary transmissions infrastructures that desegregate the neighbors they pass through, adversely impacting nearby land values and aesthetic values, not to mention use of the land for other purposes. In addition each mile of these transmission lines bleed off and waste power that would otherwise be productively put to use.

      At the time, 2015, it was found that about 145 square miles of California scrub-lands were under solar panels. About another 75 square miles of California croplands and pastures were taken away from growing crops and pasturing animals for the exclusive use of row upon row of solar panels. Another nearly 20% of utility solar farms were far way from preexisting transmission lines (at least 6 miles or more away from existing transmission lines), requiring highly wasteful and altogether new transmission systems.

      The cited studies did not get into the causes for the gross dislocation of solar power resource that so easily can harm the nations open lands and landscapes what wasting vast amounts of solar power simultaneously. I would speculate that there are a myriad of powerful and systemic reasons for the dislocation. For example, the cost and ease of building great rows and rows on solar panels on clear far ways open lands versus the cost and complexity of building within urban and suburban areas.

      But one fact is obvious. Given that solar panel farms might easily consume somewhere between a low of 27,500 square miles (size of S. Carolina) to upwards of 300,000 square miles according to some experts, combined with the huge margins for error here, and the great of unknowns of solar by reason of its complexities and uncertainties of technologies and land use, its efficiencies, storage, reliability, and potential for disruption of our lands and electrical grid and its speculative capacities and impacts for the future, whether urban, suburban, rural, or wilderness, we must with caution. And with great skill and thoughtful action based on careful planning.

      (by way of explanation, per a separate study independent of California, lets assume that 165 homes using 1 megawatt will consume 7.5 acres of open ground, covering it with the exclusive use of solar panels.)

      • The base study here labelled “Solar Energy’s Land-use Impact” dated Oct. 19, 2015 is found at carnegiescience.edu. The study was supported by a research grant from Standford’s School of Earth Sciences, among numerous others as sited therein.

      • If environmentalists weren’t so wedded to eliminating fossil fuels, I’m sure they would be raising the very same issues you mention here about the adverse impact of solar.

        Personally, I favor solar energy generated by solar panels in space and beamed to earth in the form of microwaves. Not sure how much it would cost, but it would have a smaller negative impact than terrestrial-based solar.

        • I agree Jim.

          I also believe that this blog and with people like Acbar and TomH who contribute to this blog, lifetime experts on these subjects, can contribute mightily to helping us understand and work toward solving these problems.

          Solar is great if we can make it work right. But we must discuss and explore ways to solve obvious problems before we plunge into the unknown like we have done so many times before without thinking and working issues through to get things right.

          This is NO time for IDEOLOGY. Too much is at stake.

      • Correction to last two paragraphs above:

        But one fact is obvious. Given that solar panel farms might easily consume between 27,500 square miles (size of S. Carolina) to upwards of 300,000 square miles according to some experts, combined with the huge margins for error at play here, and the great unknowns of solar technologies and their application by reason of its complexities and uncertainties of practical land use, and its efficiencies and inefficiencies, given the state of storage, reliability, and potential for disruption of our lands and electrical grid, as well as its speculative capacity to impact the future, whether urban, suburban, rural, or wilderness, we must move forward with great caution, skill and thoughtful action based on careful planning and implementation.

        (by way of explanation, per a separate study independent of California, lets assume that 165 homes using 1 megawatt will consume 7.5 acres of open ground, covering it with the exclusive use of solar panels.)

  2. Germany’s’ problem is likely that their native supplies of natural gas are scarce and getting scarcer and they have to import natural gas from Russia or burn imported fuel oil. OUCH!

    That puts them in a box when it comes to solar and wind because natural gas and fuel oil are the only fuels that can vary dynamically with generation in response to renewables variability.

    Maybe similar to many islands – who want renewables but still have to import and burn fuel oil when renewables drop. imported fuel oil is cheaper than imported natural gas… I would suspect.

  3. Yep, those are the EIA numbers – roughly 1 percent solar and 6 percent wind. (Of course fossil fuels are just stored solar energy, right? Probably more efficient than any battery! And uranium is also star stuff.) I thought solar was higher than that, given that huge facility I saw out in the Mohave Desert once. A lot of deserts in this country.

    The Trump Administration decision was expected, represents a kept campaign promise, and it will take most of the rest of the term to work its way through the swamp, but coal is not coming back as a source of electricity generation. Existing plants may close more slowly, but they will eventually close. It became clear that given a reasonable period for transition, Virginia could easily meet even the Obama CPP goals without too much economic strain. The rate hysteria generated in 2014 and 2015 had a clear purpose: justification for that 2015 legislation to protect Dominion’s excessive base rates from consumer refunds or even reduction.

  4. The thing to keep in mind when it comes to electricity and the fuels that generate it are that coal and nukes plants that use those fuels cannot vary their output not only not for renewables but not even for the varying demand on the grid – even if you don’t have any renewables.

    the technology for coal and nukes is decades old and until and unless we see more modern designs that allow variable generation in response to load – and now renewables – they are limited to baseload generation and gas (and fuel oil) become the fuels that are used to serve the grid demand that varies.

    Now, if someone comes up with a nuke design or for that matter even a coal plant design that can dynamically vary then – the game changes dramatically.

    I’d like nothing better than to see both coal and gas go away and have a grid that is variable-output nukes and renewables with the nukes ramping up whenever the renewables output diminishes and at night.

    But nukes can’t do that right now… they have to run 24/7 all out and cannot vary their power output… and they have this melt-down problem that makes them not desired near where people live.. and that pesky insurance cost to compensate millions of people if they do melt-down.

    Coal is not coming back and it did not need the CPP to cause that. I really don’t know what dismantling the CPP will result in – on the ground for most of the utilities.

    It’s inexplicable to be … in a time when technology is disrupting all kinds of industries including demand-side electricity use – as well as renewables – that we are going nowhere with modernizing nukes and still trying to build new ones with obsolete designs that remain as unacceptably deadly threats if they fail.

    If Nukes do progress to deal with their inability to vary dynamically and the deadly consequences of a fail – then that will be a game-changer…in multiple ways…and we’ll transition to a world where we can incorporate as much wind/solar as we wish .. and still retain grid reliability and sustainability.

    the coal issue will go away forever… and gas will revert to a smaller role probably consistent with the depletion of frack gas.

    Electricity is fundamental to civilization. IF folks forgot that – Puerto Rico reminded us. No electricity = no cell-phones, no internet, no traffic-lights, no hospitals, etc..

    In the end… nukes may win anyhow even if we have to run them 24/7 without varying the fuel burning..just idle some of the turbines – as is done with coal… it will be wasteful and expensive but it may be the option if we ever run out of gas and coal or oil are the other alternatives.

  5. The Clean Power Plan was a very stringent regulation that would have mandated 32% CO2 reduction (from 2005) by 2030. In consideration of population growth, this would be about 45% CO2 reduction per person by 2030, which might be possible, on the other hand could be impossible and disruptive. The other frustrating behavior of the Obama EPA was, when their lofty targets (eg; for alternate auto fuels, auto MPG, etc) turned out to be wishful thinking, the EPA was loathe to back down and cooperate with industry and states to adjust the regs for reality. It was full speed ahead into, for example, into the ethanol blend wall.

  6. Long, long before Obama… the auto industry fought fuel efficiency tooth and nail and the utilities fought emission regulations … over the 45 years of the existence of the EPA from Nixon to 7 POTUS that followed him..

    The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were enacted by the United States Congress in 1975… not Obama….

    Acid rain was regulated in 1990 under George H Bush not Obama

    Final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants was done in 1994… under Bill Clinton not Obama

    The Renewable Fuel Standard that mandated ethanol in fuels was signed into law in 2006 by George W. Bush. not Obama

    The hard right – which pretends all of this was done by Obama – were opposed tooth and nail to the formation of the EPA -as well as virtually every proposal the EPA made under eight different POTUS.

    What the EPA proposed under Obama for the CPP was actually a continuation of what the EPA had been proposing PRIOR to Obama under George Bush. Obama did not create the CPP… it was in process when he became POTUS.

    Now days.. the EPA sticker on a new car is what it is all about for most buyers. They want more fuel efficient, less polluting cars..

    In the end – most Americans support what the EPA is doing..( 69 percent of Americans support placing limits on climate pollution from existing power plants – including a majority of Americans in every Congressional district in the country:

    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/21/climate/how-americans-think-about-climate-change-in-six-maps.html?_r=1)

    they want the better mileage cars, cleaner air, no acid rain or mercury, etc… and the opponents today are the same folks who would have shut EPA down a long time ago or kept it from being created in the first place.

    Seven POTUS preceded Obama… and seven Congress advanced the EPA proposals..for reducing pollution..

    The specifics in the CPP are going to happen anyhow… the killing of the CPP is part of the scorched earth idiocy to kill or gut everything the Obama Administration did – no matter the merits of it…no matter that a lot of it was just a continuation of what started under Bush.

    • When you live by the executive order, you die by the executive order. Obama, knowing he lacked enough credibility to get legislation through Congress and figuring Hillary Clinton would succeed him, gambled by directing the reorganization of the power industry by executive order. He bet on the wrong horse.

      Whether or not coal comes back isn’t the issue. Seeing presidential arrogance toppled is.

      Larry, is this same New York Times as this? https://breaking.projectveritas.com/NYTimes1.html

      I would not trust a New York Times poll any more than I would trust Harvey Weinstein with a young woman.

  7. Larry is right. Unless the Clean Air Act is completely repealed, coal is not coming back. Most of the coal from eastern U.S. has too much sulfur to burn for generating electricity. Most of the coal from Virginia is metallurgical coal that is used in the production of steel and most of that is shipped to steel plants overseas, mainly China and India. With the cutbacks in those countries and competition from met coal from other countries, production in Virginia declined, but has been revived slightly. So, unless the current administration succeeds in barring steel imports from overseas and convincing Wall Street to fund the construction of many new steel mills, which themselves have air pollution problems, coal jobs in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, etc. are not coming back. Bosun

  8. Good discussion. The CPP’s main effect is to try to force the States to reconcile dirty coal plants with Clean Air Act goals by implementing more stringent pollution controls and operating practices and retirements that would cut dirty output. Virginia simply is not one of the chief offenders, nationally. Indeed we would benefit more than most States principally by being downwind of the Rust Belt where the biggest cleanups are required. I’m sorry to see it go. Especially after so much time and effort and planning at the State level, and utility commitments based on that, have gone into making it work.

    That said, the CPP attempted to do by executive order what only Congress has the right to do — and should have done, but utterly failed to tackle due to the disastrous gridlock there for the past 20 years!

    It remains to be seen whether the repeal of the CPP will make much if any difference for NEW construction. New technology has made many of the CPP’s baseline assumptions obsolete. Renewable generation is vastly cheaper now and certainly here to stay; battery storage and electric vehicles promise yet another revolution in a few decades; those are not dependant on the CPP. The principal effect of repeal, I think, will be to slow the retirements of those worst-offender coal plants.

  9. Had Clinton won and the CPP remained in effect, what would prevent another Germany-style result in the United States? Higher prices for electricity and no meaningful reduction in carbon emissions!

    If people like TomH and Acbar are right and the cost for renewables will decline significantly while reliability increases, why would we take a chance with a bunch of government ideologues planning the future of the electric power industry? The government makes pretty crappy economic decisions. Look at the ACHA. The average family will see a reduction of health insurance premiums of more than $2400.

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