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Obama's power plant regulations are dead. What does that mean for SC energy?

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Santee Cooper's Cross plant in Berkeley County is the largest coal burning power plant left in South Carolina. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

President Donald Trump's administration on Wednesday officially ended a federal plan to curtail carbon emissions from power plants, but the decision is unlikely to change much in South Carolina.

The replacement of President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan was billed as an effort to revive the U.S. coal industry. 

Even so, many utilities across the country continue to voluntarily transition away from coal-fired power plants, as renewable energy sources and new natural gas turbines become cheaper options. 

That trend holds true in the Palmetto State, too. 

"It's not going to change anything for people in South Carolina," said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who often litigates utility cases. "It leaves us looking at economics. And fortunately, the economics are on the side of clean energy." 

Duke Energy, the largest investor-owned utility operating in the state, has continued to retire aging coal plants that power homes and businesses in the Pee Dee and the Upstate. And the policies being pushed by the Trump administration aren't going to alter that reality, according to the Charlotte-based company.

"Based on what we know today, we don’t believe the rule will have significant impacts on our business plans for our coal plants," said Paige Sheehan, a spokesperson with Duke Energy. 

Dominion Energy, which took over S.C. Electric & Gas earlier this year, doesn't have plans to build new coal-fired power plants either, according to the latest forecast it filed with the state.

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That's true even after SCE&G abandoned construction on two unfinished reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station that were supposed to supply up to 2,200 megawatts of carbon-free power. 

"We remain steadfast in our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy rule," Dominion spokeswoman Rhonda Maree Banion said in a written statement Thursday. "We have aggressive goals to cut our carbon emissions 55 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels, and 80 percent by 2050."

The Obama-era emissions rules never went into effect because of challenges in federal court. The primary purpose was to force states to cut greenhouse gas emissions at power plants across the country by 32% compared to 2005 levels. They had until 2030 to achieve that. 

Dominion reported earlier this year that SCE&G already accomplished that goal. And Duke said it reduced its carbon emissions at all of its utilities across the country by more than 30%. 

Coal still makes up a significant portion of the energy portfolio for state-run Santee Cooper, which supplies 179,000 customers directly and sells power to the state's 20 electric cooperatives. 

Santee Cooper, the minority owner of the failed reactors at V.C. Summer, was hoping to use the new nuclear power from those reactors to replace its fleet of coal-fired plants.

The public utility did close several aging coal units in recent years. Those closures helped to drop Santee Cooper's reliance on coal from more than 80 percent to roughly 42 percent in 2017. 

But the leaders of the state's electric cooperatives asked Santee Cooper earlier this year to study whether several of its remaining coal generators are the cheapest option for customers. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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