Trump – The implications for energy Europe

The stunning success of the controversial reality TV and property magnate, Donald Trump, in the US presidential election raises a vast range of questions.

Nigel Hawkins, director, Nigel Hawkins Associates Nigel Hawkins, director, Nigel Hawkins Associates

Many, such as US policy towards Syria, for example, are outside the scope of Utility Week. Some, though, will hit closer to home, especially since Trump has form on wind-power arguments in the UK.

Trump’s mother was born on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, an improbable heritage location for a US President.

And Trump has kept up his close interest in Scotland, both with the very controversial acquisition – and modernisation – of Turnberry golf course and the development of the Balmedie golf course, near Aberdeen.

Famously, Trump’s organisation fought a lengthy legal battle to prevent the erection of nearby off-shore wind turbines.

Of course, the massive demands on any US president mean that his focus on any one issue is unlikely.

Instead, Trump’s appointee as secretary of state, Rick Perry, is expected to play a key role in framing energy policy.

Against this background, what are the implications of a president Trump in terms of EU energy policy?

On the macro-economic front, there are two key variables, that are inter-related – the US$ exchange rate and the price of oil and gas.

Ever since Trump’s stunning win, the US$ has strengthened in foreign exchange markets. In particular, there are strong expectations that the US Treasury will raise interest rates, which will have many implications for the global economy.

For UK companies, such as Centrica and Drax Group, upward pressure on gas and wood pellet import prices respectively are likely, although their specific contracts - along with any hedging facilities – should address this issue.

With so much of the world’s energy priced in US$, a strong US$ is bound to impact import prices and, eventually, retail prices.

Since Trump’s election, oil and gas prices have strengthened. Whilst Trump’s robust support for these sectors may be influential, along with the exchange rate implications, the recent agreement by the Oil Producing Exporting Countries (OPEC) is surely more pertinent.

OPEC is, of course, a shadow of the all-powerful organisation that set global oil prices in the 1970s. But its members, dominated by Saudi Arabia, still control around a third of the world oil market.

Whilst the so-called OPEC deal may not stand up when it is implemented, it has already underpinned weak ‘spot’ prices, which have risen to over $50 per barrel compared with under $30 per barrel in January 2016.

Clearly, the future direction of oil prices will have major implications for gas prices, which have also risen of late.

After all, they provide the fuel source for the UK’s many combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants, which – though barely profitable at present – still seem likely to provide the work-horse of UK electricity generation for subsequent decades.

And, at the retail level, high gas input prices will push up customer bills, especially for space heating.

Whilst ‘fracking’ has achieved relatively little so far in Western Europe, bar controversy, it has been a boom business in certain parts of the United Sates, notably in Texas.

Further ‘fracking’ investment seems likely, especially since it has exerted major downward pressure both on oil prices and on the US’s oil import bill.

On the renewables front, Trump’s election has caused massive ructions within the green energy sector.

There are real concerns that the climate change agreement at Paris, whose key recommendation was to prescribe a rise in the long-term global average temperature of well below 2 per cent above pre-industrial levels, will be unceremoniously junked.

Trump is clearly no fan of such long-term – and arguably unenforceable - agreements.

Whether the renewables sector has already peaked – and is set to decline under a Trump-led US government – remains to be seen.

Part of the US renewables incentive structure is state-determined but any major changes to any federal financial support will be very relevant.

Certainly, the EU renewables sector will be closely monitoring US developments.

Since Trump’s election, shares in Iberdrola have remained weak partly due to concerns about a less renewables-friendly sector in the US.

By contrast, Spain’s Gamesa has just announced a contract to supply 74 2.1 MW wind turbines to Terna Energy for a wind-power farm in Texas.

Despite Trump’s well-known antipathy to ‘awful’ wind turbines – he said he was ‘personally offended’ by them - he is less against solar power generation, which is developing rapidly in both Germany and Italy.

And in the UK, recent figures from NewEnergy Solar, which has c414 MW of solar capacity, show that this renewables sub-sector is now taking off.

Of the UK’s largest FTSE-100 companies, National Grid, drew more confidence than most from Trump’s success.

Massive investment in renewing US infrastructure is a central plank of Trump’s policy, especially in the depressed states of the North.

Such a policy would include heavy expenditure on new transmission lines, an investment in which National Grid would expect to play a pivotal role.

With Trump not due to assume office until next month, it is early days. His presidency, though, seems destined to be a roller-coaster ride.

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