NewEnergyNews: Monday Study – Some Utilities Keep Their Word, Some Make A Mess

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YESTERDAY

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  • THE DAY BEFORE

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  • The Fight For Tomorrow’s Grid Gets Bigger

    Monday, March 01, 2021

    Monday Study – Some Utilities Keep Their Word, Some Make A Mess

    Monday Study – THE DIRTY TRUTH About Utility Climate Pledges

    John Romankiewicz, Cara Bottorff, Leah C. Stokes, January 2021 (Sierra Club)

    Executive Summary

    To protect our planet and communities from disaster, we must do everything we can to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F). This next decade is critical to our chances to decarbonize and hit an emissions pathway consistent with a 1.5°C future.

    While this is a daunting timeline, the clean energy alternatives are available to make this transition on the needed time frame. There is no time to waste and no excuse for failing to act. Cleaning up the electricity sector is the key to economy-wide decarbonization, and electric utilities have a large role to play in making sure we are on the path toward a livable future. Many utilities have stated climate goals. However, those goals are meaningless greenwashing without utilities taking the necessary actions to decarbonize. There are three key things utilities must do to enable us to avoid catastrophic warming: They must retire existing coal plants by 2030, terminate plans to build new gas plants, and build clean energy much faster.

    In this report, we examine utilities’ performance on each of these three necessary actions. Our analysis is based on integrated resource plans (IRPs) and major announcements for the 50 utilities that remain the most invested in fossil fuel generation.3 These include investorowned utilities, power authorities (like the Tennessee Valley Authority), generation and transmission co-ops, and large municipal utilities. Overall, we examine plans for 79 operating companies owned by 50 different parent companies, as detailed in the appendices.4 These 50 companies own half of all remaining coal and gas generation in the nation — 1,310 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of coal and gas generation.5 We find there is a stark difference between utilities’ existing coal and gas generation (1,310 million MWh) and how much clean energy they plan to add this decade (only 250 million MWh). In other words, despite 33 of these companies having a public climate goal, there is an enormous gap between utilities’ current practices and what they need to do to protect people and the planet.

    STUDY SCOPE

    50 parent companies, comprised of 79 operating companies, which own half of all remaining coal and gas generation in the US. We analyzed their plans as of December 1, 2020 to

    1. Retire coal

    2. Stop building new gas plants

    3. Build clean energy in this next, crucial decade.

    We scored companies based on their plans to retire coal-fired power plants, stop building new gas plants, and build clean energy, all of which are necessary steps to keep warming under 1.5°C. We find that, apart from a few leaders, these companies are falling short on all three of these necessary actions.

    KEY FINDINGS:

    • We assigned a score to every utility based on its plans to retire coal, stop constructing new gas plants, and build new clean energy. The aggregate score for all companies studied was 17 out of 100.

    • The companies studied account for 68 percent of remaining coal generation. They have committed to retire just 25 percent of their coal generation by 2030.

    • Thirty-two of the operating companies included in this study are planning to build new gas plants — totaling over 36 gigawatts (GW) through 2030. That is over 40 percent of the total gas plants slated to be built across the US through 2030.

    • The companies studied plan to add 250 million MWh of new wind and solar energy to the grid between 2020 and 2030. This is equivalent to only 19 percent of their current coal and gas generation and is therefore wholly inadequate to bring about a swift transition to a zero-carbon grid.

    • The average score was 20 out of 100 for utilities with a net-zero climate pledge and 14 out of 100 for utilities without such a pledge, showing that utilities’ corporate pledges mean little in terms of action.

    • While electric utilities have pledged to decarbonize, they fall far short of what is necessary to protect people and the planet

    THE CLIMATE IMPERATIVE AND ROLE OF THE ELECTRIC POWER SECTOR KEY FACTS:

    • The electric sector is the cornerstone of economy-wide decarbonization.

    • To maintain a livable planet and put us on a pathway consistent with a 1.5°C future, US utilities need to phase out coal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2030.

    • We can transition to clean energy cost-effectively: The US could achieve 90 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2035 while lowering electricity costs.

    • Today, clean energy options are often cheaper than building and operating a new gas plant and are likely to be more cost-effective than continuing to run an existing gas plant by the early 2030s.

    This is a pivotal decade for the future of our climate, our planet, and humanity itself. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a landmark report which concluded that to stop the worst effects of climate change, we must limit global warming to 1.5°C.6

    To do that, we must cut planet warming emissions globally by about half by 2030. If we miss this target, the risk of “long-lasting or irreversible changes” and impacts on ecosystems, human health, and well-being increases drastically.7 Climate science is clear that we must make significant progress on decarbonization in the coming decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to research from Climate Analytics, to achieve a 1.5°C pathway, developed countries like the US must phase out coal by 2030 — which the Sierra Club has been demanding for more than a decade.8 Now public support is growing for a fully decarbonized electric sector by 2030 or 2035 at the latest…

    We know that:

    1. This next decade is critically important to our chances to decarbonize and hit an emissions pathway consistent with a 1.5°C future.

    2. The electric sector is the cornerstone of economy-wide decarbonization.

    3. Clean energy alternatives are available to make this transition cost-effectively.

    According to the University of California, Berkeley and GridLab’s “2035 Report,” 80 percent clean energy by 2030 is achievable and is consistent with a fully decarbonized electric sector by 2035.24 To maintain a livable planet and put us on a pathway consistent with a 1.5°C future, utilities need to decarbonize immediately and reduce emissions by at least 80 percent this decade.

    That means utilities must do the following:

    1. Retire existing coal plants.

    2. Terminate plans to build any new gas plants.

    3. Build clean energy. What are electric utilities in the United States doing to meet this moment?

    UTILITIES LAG ON RETIRING COAL PLANTS KEY FINDINGS:

    • The companies we studied generated 43 percent of the country’s electricity.

    • These companies have only committed to retire 25 percent of their coal generation by 2030.

    UTILITIES CONTINUE TO PUSH TO BUILD NEW GAS PLANTS KEY FINDINGS:

    • In the last 10 years (2010-2019), over 100 GW of new gas plants have been built across the US.

    • Thirty-two of the operating companies included in this study are planning to build new gas plants totaling over 36 GW through 2030. That is over 40 percent of the total planned gas across the US through 2030.

    UTILITIES ARE NOT BUILDING CLEAN ENERGY FAST ENOUGH KEY FINDING:

    • The companies studied plan to add 250 million MWh of new wind and solar energy to the grid between 2020 and 2030. This is equivalent to only 19 percent of their current coal and gas generation and is therefore wholly inadequate to bring about a swift transition to a zero-carbon grid.

    UTILITIES SCORE AN F FOR THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO A CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE KEY FINDING:

    • We assigned a score to every utility based on its plans to retire coal, construct new gas plants, and build new clean energy. The aggregate score for all companies studied is 17 out of 100

    UTILITY CLIMATE GOALS FAIL THE CLIMATE TEST KEY FINDINGS:

    • While many electric utilities have pledged to decarbonize, their goals fall far short of what is necessary to protect people and the planet.

    • Over half of the companies we studied have no goal or do not have a climate goal in the timeframe that is relevant for planning (this decade).

    • Only five of the operating companies are legally required to meet their climate goal because of a state-level statute. Of these, only two are complete parent companies such that the entire parent company is bound by law to the company’s publicly stated climate goal.

    • The average score was 20 out of 100 for utilities with a net-zero climate pledge and 14 out of 100 for utilities without such a pledge, showing that the pledges have not led to any appreciable amount of near-term ambition or action.

    CONCLUSION

    Utilities across the country are failing to decarbonize in the timeframe that matters. By keeping coal plants running, planning to construct new gas plants, and failing to build out clean energy at the necessary scale and pace, these utilities are locking us into climate disaster. Here, we looked at 50 parent companies which make up 43 percent of total US generation.

    The aggregate score for these companies was 17 out of 100, a failing grade. These companies’ supposed climate commitments are a distraction. This is evidenced by the very similar average score for utilities with a netzero climate pledge, 20, and for utilities without such a pledge, 14.

    Utilities must decarbonize rapidly in order to preserve a habitable climate. In addition, cleaning up our electricity system provides numerous economic and environmental benefits beyond a stable climate, as it allows other sectors to electrify and decarbonize. Utilities can become partners in the clean energy transition.

    By making real commitments to eliminate climate pollution — commitments that are backed up by concrete, binding plans — utilities can lead the way to a livable future with a stable climate, economic opportunities, and clean air for all.

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