How Electric Utilities' Climate Pledges Are Falling Short

New report reveals that many pledges to decarbonize aren't going far enough to protect people and the planet.

Wind Blowing Pollution
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It’s fairly well documented that the quality of net-zero emissions goals can range wildly. From the plausible prospect of net-zero farms within a decade to the questionable notion that oil giants can go net-zero while still selling oil, what matters is not whether a company or organization or country is willing to go net-zero – but rather, how they are defining it, how fast they plan on getting there and, what, exactly, are the steps they’ll take in the next few years.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of electric utilities, where the proliferation of lofty "climate neutral by 2050" pledges must be measured against the fact that these same utilities plan to keep old coal plants running for decades, not to mention build out new gas too. Earlier this year, Sierra Club – which has successfully waged war on United States coal over the past decade or two – released an extremely useful report and research tool which should help activists, communities, and investors alike to hold Big Energy accountable.

Titled “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges,” the report was co-authored by renewables expert Dr. Leah Stokes, and grades the energy transition plans of 79 operating companies, owned by 50 parent companies. Crucially, it assesses these companies not on whether they are pledging to phase out coal at some point in the future – but rather how much they are retiring by 2030, whether they are planning on building any new fossil fuel infrastructure to replace it, and also how much they plan on investing in renewables during this same timeframe. 

Among the report’s findings:

  • On average, the 50 parent utilities scored just 17 out of 100 for their climate plans – which translates to an F according to Sierra Club’s rankings.
  • The companies – which account for 68 percent of all remaining coal generation in the United States – have committed to retiring just 25 percent of their coal plants by 2030.
  • 32 of these companies also plan to build new gas plants totaling over 36 gigawatts through 2030.
  • While these same companies do plan to add 250 million MWh of new wind and solar energy by 2030, the report points out this is equivalent to only 19 percent of their existing coal and gas generation capacity.

There are, happily, a few bright spots. Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) gets a shout out in the report for its plan to retire all of its existing coal capacity by 2028 at the latest, and to do so without building any new gas. (We covered this rather significant plan when it was announced back in 2018.)

Utilities will no doubt argue that transitions take time, and that "bridge fuels" and long-term phase-out plans will be necessary in order to minimize disruption. Yet as the report itself points out, these arguments fly in the face of mainstream climate science. Here’s how Mary Anne Hitt, National Director of Campaigns for Sierra Club, described the report’s findings in a press release:

"The infuriating truth is that many utilities are not only protecting their coal plants from retirement, but are also actively planning to build out climate destabilizing gas plants – ignoring climate science, delaying their embrace of renewables, and pushing us further into the crisis.” 

In a subsequent exchange of messages via Twitter, I suggested to Hitt that the fact a country like the United Kingdom has managed to slash its emissions to Victorian Era levels in around a decade, without raising prices, would suggest that much faster progress is not only necessary but eminently achievable here in the U.S. too. She agreed:

"Here in the US, clean energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the country. And yet compared to the UK, we have a long way to go in scaling up technologies like offshore wind. We have incredible potential in our hands to tackle the climate crisis and save families money at the same time, and it's time to seize that opportunity.”

 Climate pledges are, of course, an important signal of intent. They don’t mean much, however, unless those pledges are turned into determined, sustained, and meaningful progress. Sierra Club and its allies are hoping that by highlighting the gap between words and action, they can begin to move utilities toward walking their talk.

View Article Sources
  1. Romankiewiz, John, and Cara Bottorff. "The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges." Sierra Club, 2021.

  2. "How Much Power is 1 Gigawatt?" Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 2019.