posted on 07 September 2016
by Richard Stavros
After a tumultuous primary season and two contentious nominating conventions, the presidential candidates' differences on energy policy are coming into focus. Naturally, there are significant implications.
While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have substantial disagreements in most areas, when it comes to energy policy their views are so dramatically divergent that the election could be viewed as a mini-referendum on whether America will boost green energy or expand fossil fuels.
Indeed, investors might view the election's outcome as a zero-sum game for parts of the energy sector, as Clinton's push for renewable energy could come at the expense of fossil fuels, whereas Trump's push for oil, gas and coal expansion could come at the expense of renewables.
Each candidate could almost be considered a proxy for the energy industries they're championing.
For example, Clinton has said that she wants to generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of her first term.
The Democratic candidate has also called for the elimination of subsidies to the oil industry, increased R&D into green energy and for modernizing energy infrastructure.
In April, she told The Washington Post, "I don't think I've changed my view on what we need to do to go from where we are, where the world is heavily dependent on coal and oil, but principally coal, to where we need to be, which is clean renewable energy."
While Clinton is clearly opposed to fossil fuels, Trump is their chief defender. He wants to "revitalize coal," and open up federal lands to oil and gas drilling.
In a speech back in May, Trump promised that in his first 100 days in office he'd rescind EPA environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to cut carbon emissions for the power sector 32% by 2030.
Further, the Republican candidate would also "cancel" the Paris climate accord, signed by the governments of more than 190 countries last year in an aim to reduce climate change.
Although Trump has called wind and solar "expensive" technologies, it should be noted he hasn't gone full tilt against renewables, stopping short of saying he would remove various subsidies that support them.
However, the reversal of carbon emissions and climate-change regulations would scale back renewables development. But even as president, Trump would not be able to act unilaterally to undo these rules.
Mixed Signals for Investment
While each candidate has reasonably clear policy preferences when it comes to energy, the investment implications of each for the electric utility sector are not so clear.
Electric utilities have long been dutifully expanding their renewable fleets in accordance with state-level renewables mandates and in anticipation of more stringent carbon-emissions regulations at the federal level.
At the same time, they still generate most of their electricity from fossil fuels such as coal and gas. And the resource mix varies from company to company. So not all utilities would be affected in the same way.
However, because utilities have already spent years adapting to the possibility of a low-carbon regime, we already know which firms would be superior investments if Clinton were elected.
I previously conducted an in-depth study that compared each utility's carbon footprint - based on tons of CO2 emissions per megawatt hours - to its financial performance, using key metrics such as return on assets, return on equity, and return on investment.
The results revealed the following names as among the top low-carbon utilities:
PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG)
Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXC)
Entergy Corp. (NYSE: ETR)
Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (NYSE: PEG)
NextEra Energy Inc. (NYSE: NEE)
Dominion Resources Inc. (NYSE: D)
Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE)
Duke Energy Corp. (NYSE: DUK)
Edison International (NYSE: EIX)
Utilities for Trump?
Of course, cynics would argue that you should simply follow the money if you really want to know which candidate might be better for utilities.
On that score, utilities have favored Republicans over Democrats in recent years, including those firms that have made sizable investments in renewables.
During the 2014 election cycle, the utility sector made $21.6 million in political contributions, with 62% going to Republicans and 38% to Democrats.
Over the past year, NextEra, Exelon, Duke, PG&E and Southern Company (NYSE: SO) gave the vast majority of their political contributions to Republicans.
Though we don't know whether these utilities specifically support Trump's energy policies, the fact that the sector has supported Republicans so overwhelmingly suggests they believe that a rollback of environmental regulations and an expansion of the oil, gas and coal industries would be a boon for their businesses.
Fortunately, there's a way for investors to play either electoral outcome. Those who like to hedge their bets should favor utilities that are ready for Clinton, even if these firms' political contributions suggest they might prefer Trump.
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