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The Coming Coal Solar Wars

Trump administration policies are expected to boost coal at the possible expense of solar power.

 
Bloomberg -- President Donald Trump may soon have a chance to prove wrong the notion that economics will kill the U.S. coal industry and keep clean energy thriving.

Two initiatives pending in Washington -- one to prop up large traditional power plants and a second to impose tariffs on solar panels -- could let Trump upend wholesale electricity markets and tip the advantage away from renewables.

The moves, which invoke laws that haven’t been used in a decade, come as Congress weighs a White House tax plan that may undermine a key source of financing for clean energy. Together, they raise questions about whether falling costs will be enough to keep wind and solar thriving under a president intent on supporting fossil fuels.

“The general direction of travel seems pretty clear,” said Ethan Zindler, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst. “And if all of those things fall into place, they are not great news for renewables.”

The most recent development came when U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to help coal and nuclear plants compete in wholesale power markets. The request, citing an obscure, 30-year-old statute, is designed to promote national security by rewarding plants capable of storing 90 days of fuel on site.

The proposal may help coal and nuclear plants remain in operation even if they’re not economical to run, leaving fewer opportunities for developers to build new wind and solar farms, analysts said. It would be a significant shift from FERC’s largely free-market approach to governing, and it’s unclear if the three-member commission -- two of whom were nominated by Trump -- will agree.

“This is a very radical proposal,” said Miles Farmer, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “FERC doesn’t have to listen to the DOE -- at all.”

Trade groups representing the oil, gas, wind and solar industries are united in opposition, submitting a joint motion Monday calling on FERC to reject the change.

Meanwhile, there’s the push to impose tariffs on imported solar panels, which didn’t come from the White House though the issue will soon be on the president’s desk.

Suniva, a bankrupt panel manufacturer, filed a trade complaint in April under a law that hadn’t been successfully used since 2002. The company argued it was crippled by a flood of cheap imported panels from Asia and elsewhere. Now the U.S. International Trade Commission has until Nov. 13 to recommend the size, scope and duration of any tariffs to Trump, who has final say.

Most of the U.S. solar industry opposes the effort, arguing that inexpensive foreign panels have driven a boom in clean energy projects and created tens of thousands of jobs. If panel prices rise, development will slow, companies say.

‘‘Tariffs at the level the petitioner has proposed would be devastating,” Solar Energy Industries Association Chief Executive Officer Abigail Ross Hopper said in a phone interview Monday.

Wind and solar accounted for more than half of new capacity added to U.S. grids in the past two years, thanks to two economic trends. The first, low natural gas prices, have driven down the price of electricity and forced aging coal-fired generators to close. The second is that wind and solar farms have become much cheaper to build, making them an attractive replacement.

That trend could suffer collateral damage from Trump’s tax plan. Wind and solar companies depend on financing from large banks, insurers and other backers that take advantage of federal credits through tax-equity financing -- a mechanism that lets businesses buy from renewable-energy developers tax credits they can use to lower their own tax bills. If corporate rates fall, investors will have less need for write-offs, potentially damping demand for this type of investment.

“I don’t see any benefit for renewables in tax reform,” said Gregory Jenner, a Washington-based partner at the law firm Stoel Rives.

State laws requiring utilities to source a portion of their electricity from renewables also play a role. So do dozens of large companies that have pledged to power their operations entirely with wind and solar, including Bank of America Corp., General Motors Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

Those dynamics are unlikely to change, said  Ken Locklin, director of Impax Asset Management, whose firm has $9.4 billion under management. And in the long run, it’s unlikely Trump will slow wind and solar’s momentum, he said.

“Perhaps there will be temporary headwinds,” Locklin said. “But they are political delays against a fundamental economic argument that will win out.”

 

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