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This Valentine’s Day is Time To Ask If Your Utility Has a Commitment Problem

, Senior Energy Analyst | February 11, 2021, 11:10 am EDT
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Perhaps one of the most over-used Hollywood clichés is the non-committal partner. Often willing to espouse love for their significant other, yet unwilling to, as Beyonce would recommend, “put a ring on it.”

Sadly, electric utilities across the United States seem to have fallen in the same trope: More than willing to set big ambitious goals around climate but unwilling to commit to making good on those goals.

Utilities seem to have offered us a big box of Valentine’s chocolates but when two of my former colleagues looked inside, they found the box mostly empty.

A recent study published by Sierra Club analysts—John Romankiewicz and Cara Bottorff—and co-authored by UCSB Professor Dr. Leah Stokes, details that while many utilities have zero and net-zero emissions goals most aren’t anywhere close to being on a pathway to meeting those goals. The report graded utilities based on utility plans filed with regulators rather than by commitments made to the public. The report gave points to companies for plans to build renewable energy and for retiring coal but took away points from companies with plans to build new natural gas.

One noteworthy observation from the report is that many of the utilities with the most success in getting recognition for big ambitious goals are not always the ones making progress on decarbonization.

Take for example Xcel Energy, which received widespread attention when it announced its decarbonization goal. But while many people focused on the ambition of the goal, advocacy groups like UCS made it clear that these commitments were only as good as the actions that followed. The Sierra Club’s report gave Xcel Energy a grade of C, and it only did that well because the professors were grading on a curve.

Southern Company, a large conglomerate of state utility companies, also has fallen short in making good on its goal to decarbonize, receiving an F after failing to make real commitments to retire coal and build renewables. That failing grade also might have to do with the company’s seeming commitment to investing in clean energy projects that haven’t yielded any clean energy while only spending a small fraction on renewables.

Duke Energy, one of the largest utility holding companies in the United States, also received significant press attention for its ‘net zero’ goal. Duke’s refusal to retire coal and its rush to build gas-fired power plants landed it and many of its subsidiaries F’s.

Some utilities will Say Anything to hold on to old, dirty, fossil fuel power plants.

On the flip side, the only two parent companies to receive an “A” grade don’t even have a 100% clean or a net-zero goal. The top-scoring company, NiSource, owner of Indiana company NIPSCO, has a goal to reduce emissions 90 percent for which it received little fanfare and almost no mainstream media attention. But last year it announced that it would retire all its coal and replace it with renewables, which helped it secure its A grade.

The 2nd highest grade went to Great River Energy (GRE), whose goal of 50% clean by 2030 goal pales in comparison to the ambition of other companies with far worse grades, but who is making progress on retiring coal.

In the aftermath of the Sierra Club report, the utilities and their trade association got VERY defensive. Unfortunately for them, the defense they offered wasn’t particularly good. The response from the companies was to point back to the ambitious goals, which the Sierra Club had already pointed out they weren’t making real progress on. Affirming their commitment to those goals but without offering any hard data that directly retorts Sierra Club’s critique… just doesn’t cut it.

If utilities were really committed to decarbonization they’d want to the decarbonizing to start as soon as possible.  

At the end of the day, Sierra Club’s report deserves an A. Its findings hold up and so do its conclusions.

My commitment to my partner did not end when we moved in together, or when I proposed, or even when we got married. The very essence of commitment is that it is an ongoing expression of words plus actions, time, and effort.

If a utility wants the public to believe a carbon reduction pledge it has to back it up with actions.

That means ceasing coal, ramping up renewables, and decreasing its reliance on gas.

It means not trying to exploit loopholes to not build a new gas plant by trying to buy an old gas plant.

It means ensuring subsidiaries also follow through with parent company climate goals.

Commitment is more than occasionally bringing home flowers for no apparent reason. For utilities, the occasional proclamation to cut carbon won’t cut it.

People deserve clean energy, and hollow commitments aren’t enough—if the utility won’t commit, then the utility should not stand in the way of people pursuing clean energy for themselves. After all, there is a nearly universal agreement: We need to build as much wind and solar as fast as possible; and, we need to invest in a lot more transmission and distributed resources. If a utility isn’t going to do it, it ought to at least let its customers.

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