Supply, demand and the changing energy picture

Monday, November 14, 2016

Health insurance and immigration are the first things to come to mind when the subject of Donald Trump's election comes up, but no issue is off the table when it comes time for the new administration to take over the reins of power.

The Dakota Access pipeline was the current flash point, drawing protests before and after the presidential election.

Before that, the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected by President Obama and, after a delay, by candidate Hillary Clinton, but the election of Donald Trump could see both projects revived for completion.

Like any commodity, energy is governed by the law of supply and demand. While the process of supplying energy -- coal mining, oil drilling and energy production -- usually draws the most attention, changes in downstream demand can have profound effects.

Nebraska is the only state served entirely by publicly-owned utilities, and state law requires public utilities to deliver power and the cheapest prices possible.

Even utilities that don't answer to stockholders, just ratepayers, have been affected by factors such as stagnant demand, changing regulations, cheap natural gas and more efficient homes.

"This industry is in what I believe is a unique period of evolution, Nebraska Public Power District President and CEO Pat Pope said.

The Omaha Public Power District is facing perhaps the biggest challenging, shutting down its fort Calhoun nuclear plant while facing shutdown costs for decades to come.

But OPPD is bringing on new sources of power, such as the wind, more natural gas and gas generated from landfills.

The Lincoln Electric System is building the first utility-scale project in the state and splits its generation equally between coal, natural gas and renewable sources.

A potentially more disruptive technology is on the horizon, where power is produced and stored in the homes where it is consumed.

One example is being touted by tech billionaire and innovator Elon Musk, a new system of rooftop solar cells that look like conventional shingles, which produce electricity to be stored in in-home batteries like those that power Musk's popular Tesla cars.

Should such a system gain widespread acceptance -- which could be delayed if federal tax benefits are allowed to expire this year -- the need to build large central generation facilities will be reduced.

With so many unknown factors affecting the price and availability and energy, it will be interesting to see what happens with free-market champion Donald Trump in charge.

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