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Staying Clean

By Ari Charney on November 11, 2016

Lost amid all the emotionalism following the election’s unexpected outcome is the fact that the U.S. is already well on its way toward generating cleaner energy, regardless of future policymaking.

While the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is likely really and truly dead at this point—it’s been in limbo since the Supreme Court issued a stay back in February—that doesn’t mean the power industry can suddenly turn on a dime.

And it also misses the fact that federal regulation isn’t the only source of environmental mandates. Indeed, utilities have already made great strides toward generating cleaner energy in response to state-level mandates and incentives. Those that existed prior to any efforts to comply with the CPP are unlikely to go away.

Additionally, late last year the Republican Congress agreed to generous extensions of subsidies for wind and solar power generation. In fact, the legislation created one of the clearest runways for future renewables development the industry has ever seen. That, too, is unlikely to go away.

Beyond that, the upgrade and expansion of utility infrastructure can often be a multi-decade process. A utility executive’s concept of the long term is truly long term.

Once that investment is underway, it would be difficult to halt. After all, utilities stand to earn a fair return on that investment, while regulators would be leery of killing projects and creating stranded costs.

And much of the shift toward cleaner energy has been purely economic. The Shale Revolution has created a glut of natural gas, which has made it cheaper for utilities to use gas-fired generation in lieu of coal.

In fact, here’s a fun game you can play with your favorite armchair activist. After they finish predicting certain apocalypse due to the demise of the CPP, ask them what percentage of net U.S. power generation they think comes from cleaner sources of energy than coal.

Now, watch their surprise as you reveal that in 2015 cleaner sources of energy totaled nearly 67% of U.S. net generation (based on megawatt hours per fuel source).

Natural gas accounted for nearly a third of total net generation, zero-emitting nuclear about 20%, hydro (the renewable that gets no respect) about 6%, while other renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, came in at 7.6%.

By contrast, just 15 years ago, the situation was quite different. King Coal accounted for almost 51% of net generation, while contributions from renewables such as wind and solar were negligible. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Now, comfort your astonished friend with a mug of hot cocoa and ask him when he’s finally going to purchase a carbon offset for his enormous SUV.

Back to Basics

Of course, even with all the progress we’ve made, the end of the CPP could have some investment implications for utilities.

The sector has shrewdly used environmental mandates as an opportunity to generate new earnings growth in an era when electricity demand has been weak due to rising efficiency and the anemic recovery.

The CPP promised a long, predictable source of future earnings growth. In its absence, there will be a greater variation among state environmental mandates. Some states, such as California and Hawaii, will continue to push aggressively for renewables, while other states will take a slower approach. But the overall trend is still one toward cleaner power generation.

As investors, we prefer that our favorite utilities have as much operational flexibility as possible, whether it comes to capital or fuel sources. In fact, some of the utilities that are best known for pushing into renewables still have sizable coal fleets. Now they’ll have more time to decide how their sources of generation will evolve.

And if Trump’s plans for corporate tax cuts and infrastructure spending actually come to fruition, that could kick off a new cycle of economic growth, which would go a long way toward boosting electricity demand.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that just as there’s a business cycle, there’s also a political cycle.

Thankfully, our revolutions still occur at the ballot box. And that means the political tides could shift in another direction four to eight years hence.

With their ultra-long-term outlooks, utilities are likely well aware of this possibility too.

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