Are utilities giving up on coal too?

coal emissions photo
CC BY-ND 2.0 dmytrok

I confess, I am surprised this hasn't been bigger news already.

But Cleantechnica reports that AGL, which happens to be Australia's largest utility carbon polluter, has just announced it will begin shifting its business model to completely eliminate carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Among the specifics of what AGL is planning to do:

• Continue investing in renewables, and other low carbon technologies.
• Cease investing in new conventional coal-fired capacity in Australia.
• Commit to not extending the life of its existing coal-fired plants.
• Close all existing coal fired plants in its portfolio by 2050 at the latest.

Now, when I posted about Italian utility giant Enel's plans to decarbonize by 2050, some folks responded that you can't trust big energy, and that 2050 was too late anyway.

But I think these efforts deserve a little more excitement from those of us who would like to see a livable planet. Here's why:

Utilities, and the fossil fuel companies that supply them, have traditionally been a major political force in slowing a transition to clean energy. As individual entities within that block realign themselves, committing to transitioning away from coal and investing more in renewables, efficiency, demand response etc—they are not simply adding to the resources that are pushing for a low carbon future, but they are simultaneously removing a major barrier to that future.

The result is a fundamental shift in the dynamic, and one that cannot possibly be ignored by the policy makers, investors, corporations and voters who shape the landscape in which these companies operate.

Yes, in an ideal world we'd see utilities decarbonize long before 2050, but that may well happen—and a commitment from the likes of AGL makes it more likely that it will. Nobody can accurately predict the future. It wasn't long ago that everyone expected global coal use to rise for decades to come, and now it's looking increasingly likely that the coal boom is over.

From AGL to Enel to Germany's RWE and E.On, an increasing number of utilities are recognizing the writing on the wall. Heck, as I noted in my post about Google quitting ALEC, the boss of utility company NRG turned up at the New York Climate March.

Yes, a little skepticism of corporate climate goals is warranted. Yes, we must remain vigilant of greenwash or empty promises. But we can also celebrate progress when we see it. A single big, fossil fuel driven energy utility committing to decarbonize would have seemed far fetched just a few years ago. Now I find myself wondering how many more we'll hear from before the year is out.

Tags: Activism | Coal | Electricity | Renewable Energy


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