Exelon, others take industry clean-up in own hands

By Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal
Posted Nov. 23, 2010 at 6:51 a.m.

A group of utility executives who once lobbied Congress to cap greenhouse-gas emissions say they are now pressing ahead with their own efforts to clean up the industry.

“We’re making our own destiny,” said Chris Gould, vice president of corporate strategy for Exelon Corp. in Chicago, the nation’s largest owner of nuclear-power plants and one of the biggest backers of the failed “cap and trade” legislation.

The new, take-charge attitude is motivated not only by environmental concerns. The industry has identified what it believes are opportunities to make lucrative investments in such things as transmission lines, advanced meters, enhancements to existing power plants, and electric vehicle infrastructure.

In a blueprint released last week, Exelon executives said their 13-state region could achieve reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions nearly equal to what federal legislation might have achieved in the next decade by pressing ahead with activities already encouraged by state and federal regulators.

Exelon plans to spend more than $5 billion by 2017 in ways that should cut its greenhouse-gas emissions. It includes as much as $290 million a year on energy-efficiency programs at utilities it owns in Illinois and Pennsylvania and $3.8 billion to increase the capacity of its existing nuclear plants by up to 1,500 megawatts.

Bob Shapard, chief executive at Oncor, an energy-delivery company in Dallas, said in an interview that smart meters, electric cars and big transmission projects — such as those able to ferry wind power to cities from remote locations — could trim greenhouse-gas emissions significantly and were a worthy focus of utility investment.

Utility investing over the next few years is likely to develop differently than it would have under a cap-and-trade law. That legislation would have done more to encourage construction of new nuclear plants, for example, by raising the cost of emissions for fossil-fuel generators.

But federal cap-and-trade legislation faltered on fears that it would raise energy and manufacturing costs, making U.S. products costlier at a time when other nations, such as China, are resisting emission limits. The coal lobby also opposed the legislation, which likely would have accelerated the shuttering of old coal-fired power plants.

Some utilities had supported cap-and-trade proposals because they wanted regulatory certainty. The industry often invests in assets with a life of 50 or 60 years, and utilities wanted a federal energy plan that would reduce risk in such investments.

Ted Craver, chief executive of energy company Edison International in Rosemead, Calif., said his company had made every effort to advance greenhouse-gas legislation and that he wasn’t keen on investing a lot of time in pleading the case again.

But even though the utilities won’t now have the benefit of federal legislation, laws passed in many states require utilities to obtain more energy from renewable or cleaner sources.

Lew Hay III, chief executive of NextEra Energy Inc., previously known as FPL Group, in Juno Beach, Fla., said 30 states had renewable-energy goals that would compel the construction of 8,000 megawatts of clean power generation each year for the next decade. Given that half the nation’s coal-fired capacity is more than 40 years old, he said, there’s ample opportunity for states to replace old units with cleaner sources of electricity.

Another motivation for the industry is that regulated utilities are guaranteed a return on any investment approved by state or federal regulators. So a $1 billion investment can produce a return of $100 million a year or so for a typical utility.

Consumers will see the costs of these investments flow into increased utility rates. The industry says the burden will be lightened by the fact that wholesale power prices are currently low — equivalent to 2004 prices — owing to slack fuel costs.

The decision by utilities to press ahead is not without risks. If power prices suddenly rise, for example, regulators could resist additional investments.

But while the new approach isn’t as sweeping as federal legislation, which would have reached across industries, Mr. Shapard at Oncor said it was an effective short-term strategy.

“It’s like getting Al Capone for tax evasion,” he said. “It’s not as satisfying as getting him for murder, but it still puts him away.”

– By Rebecca Smith

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