In the slow-moving, capital-intensive, heavily-regulated electric utility industry, the times they aren’t a-changin.’
Natural gas is the cheap fossil fuel of choice. Coal will be burned for as long as there is coal. The federal government will never–never–have a comprehensive energy policy.
Climate crisis? What climate crisis?
Those were the themes that emerged today as four of the power industry’s most powerful CEOs–Mike Morris of American Electric Power, Lew Hay of NextEra, Tom Fanning of the Southern Company and Tom Farrell of Dominion –spoke at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum in Washington.
“Five years out, it (the industry) will look exactly as it does today,” declared Morris, perhaps the grumpiest of the grumpy old men on the panel.
Ten years from now, he went on, the industry will still look very familiar, with one significant change: Old and inefficient coal plants will have been replaced by combined-cycle plants that burn natural gas.
Only Hay–whose NextEra is a leading clean energy company–argued that the declining costs of wind and solar energy, the appeal of electric cars and improving renewable-energy technology could expand the share of low-carbon energy in the electric grid.
With AEP’s Morris to his right and the Southern Co.’s Fanning to his left–both are big-time coal burners–Hay quipped: “I feel like I’m the cream in the middle of an Oreo cookie, sitting between my coal brethren.”
But even he acknowledged that the availability of cheap shale gas, the after-effects of the recession which slowed demand for electricity, and the absence of a comprehensive federal energy policy had dimmed the outlook for renewable power.
“Without a doubt,” Hay said, “the renewable business is not as robust as it was three years ago.” NextEra still plans to build 700MW to 1000MW of wind and solar generating capacity a year, more than most if not all other big utilities–but under more favorable conditions, it would be building even more.
None of the other CEOs expressed any enthusiasm for solar or wind power. (If the word “climate” was spoken, I missed it.) With that exception, the four power guys agreed much more than they disagreed.
All say we need a fully diversified energy mix–coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and efficiency measures.
All say more government investment should be steered towards so-called clean coal.
All support a ramp-up of nuclear power.
All lament the absence of a consistent, long-term federal energy policy.
Hay said: “We’re never going to have a comprehensive energy policy.”
Morris agreed: “Hoping for the U.S. to craft an energy policy is folly. It’s never going to happen.”
For good measure, he added: “You have global issue that will never come to resolution, and that is carbon and CO2 emissions.”
If they’re right about that–and so far, they are—it’s hard to argue with the utility industry’s inclination to resist change. They’ve sunk vast amounts of capital into their current generation fleet. Their regulators want them to supply low-cost reliable power above all else. So, it’s a safe bet, do their customers.
Without a price on carbon dioxide emissions–and with natural gas prices as low as they are today–that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for renewable energy generation to compete on a cost basis with fossil fuels. Of course, there are so many subsidies for both renewable energy and fossil fuels that straightforward cost comparison are difficult to make.
Still, all the market signals are pointing in the direction of natural gas. Cheap gas trumps eveything is the way one industry insider put it recently.
There will be a rush to gas,” Fanning said, for better or worse.
Afterward, I asked Lew Hay if this more-of-the-same approach to the future would get U.S. carbon emissions down to where they need to be in the next five of 10 years.
That depends, he replied, on where you think they need to be.
“If we shut down the least efficient coal plants and replace them with natural gas, there will be a pretty dramatic reduction in carbon emissions,” he said.
It’s not the carbon tax that he once advocated. (See my 2009 blogpost, FPL’s change of heart.) Nor is it the cap-and-trade scheme that leading environmentalists and some in the utility industry, including Hay, once united around.
But it’s all we’ve got for now.