Credit: File photo
Report says many utilities are slow-walking clean energy goals
DENVER — A report released this week by the Sierra Club faults dozens of utilities that provide a major chunk of U.S. electric generation for failing to speed up their decarbonization efforts.
“For the sake of our communities and planet, we must do everything in our power to create a clean, renewable electric grid by 2030,” the Sierra’s Club’s “Dirty Truth” report says. “Utilities must lead this transition, but our research shows they are wholly unprepared to do their part. Clean energy is reliable and affordable; electric utilities have no excuse to delay and no time left to waste.”
The report, released Monday, is an update of a 2021 study the group did. The Sierra Club analyzed plans of 77 utilities that collectively supply about 40% of U.S. electric generation and gave out letter grades based on how well utilities, many with their own clean energy goals, were working to decarbonize.
Sierra Club gave Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power a failing grade in its second edition of its “Dirty Truth” report, imploring the state’s largest utility to accelerate retirement of coal plants, put a halt to building new gas plants and to invest more in clean energy.
Georgia Power’s 20-year roadmap, approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission this summer, details the company plans to retire its fleet of coal fired power plants and close 29 coal ash ponds in its push to produce more economically feasible electricity and cut greenhouse gas emissions to close to zero by 2050.
That plan set retirement dates for coal-fired units at Plant Scherer in Juliette and Plant Wansley near Carrollton, however, state regulators delayed a decision until 2025 on when the final two generators will be shut down at Plant Bowen in Northwest Georgia.
Georgia Power had ceased generating coal at Plant Wansley by the start of September and changed course to a cleanup process preferred by environmental groups that stores coal ash in a lined landfill instead of leaving it in unlined pits that could contaminate groundwater.
But the company’s plans at many other sites is to use the “cap in place” method for coal ash that the Sierra Club says poses dangers to nearby residents.
Charline Whyte, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi said the big regional supplier of electricity needs to do more to protect the environment.
“We’re happy to see Georgia Power closing coal units, but replacing one dirty fossil fuel with another is not good for our communities,” Whyte said. “Georgia Power’s latest energy plan secured fracked gas power purchase agreements that lock the state into another decade of fossil fuels and eclipse the small renewable investments the utility proposed.”
“Southern Company’s net zero pledge is a step in the right direction, but it will only become reality if Alabama Power, Georgia Power, and Mississippi Power actually step up and take the actions necessary to meet the 2050 timeline. As a whole, Southern Company would have you believe that it’s rapidly transitioning its energy portfolio from dirty fossil fuels like coal and fracked gas to clean energy, but numbers don’t lie: Southern Company still heavily relies on fossil fuels to power our grid.”
“Most are still not on the path to achieve 80% clean electricity by 2030,” the Sierra Club said. “Of the 77 utilities we studied, nearly half of them (44%) made no progress or received a lower score than in our previous report. This disappointing inaction occurred despite a tumultuous 18 months of grid reliability crises, blackouts, energy price spikes and extreme weather events; many of these trace their roots in large part to utilities’ stubborn reliance on expensive and unreliable fossil fuels.”
To determine the grades, the Sierra Club looked at the latest versions of the utilities’ integrated resource plans, documents that lay out how they will meet future electric demand, evaluating how quickly they intend to retire coal plants and penalizing them for plans that include building new gas generation.
“If a company includes multiple scenarios in their IRP, we use the scenario they denote as their preferred scenario,” said Cara Bottorff, a Sierra Club managing senior analyst. “If they do not denote a preferred scenario, we use the scenario that is the worst case for gas (i.e., the one that would add the most gas) to demonstrate the largest amount of gas that the company is considering building.”
Overall, 56% of the utilities examined improved their scores, 9% made no progress and 35% got worse grades. You can check how your local utility did here.
The Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents investor-owned utilities, called the metrics “arbitrary” and dismissed the report as a “messaging document.”
“The reality is that existing nuclear generation and the flexibility provided by natural gas generation are what enabled the U.S. electric power industry to deploy 27 gigawatts of new renewables, reliably and cost-effectively, last year,” said Brian Reil, an EEI spokesman.
“The emissions reductions goals set by America’s investor-owned electric companies are firmly grounded in our current understanding of technology and economics, and they also reflect our responsibility to prioritize customer affordability and reliability.”
Reil noted that more than 40% of U.S. electricity is now generated by carbon-free resources and said electric utilities are investing in new technologies to deliver more.
“If the Sierra Club truly wants to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, they should consider joining the other environmental, industry and government leaders who are working together constructively to identify ways to overcome the barriers to building the transmission and other clean energy infrastructure we clearly need in order to deliver more resilient clean energy to customers,” he said.
At the Experience POWER conference for energy industry professionals Tuesday in Denver, the pace of the renewable energy transition was a major theme. Duane Highley, the CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – a not-for-profit cooperative supplier which operates in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska and includes 42 electric distribution cooperatives and public power districts that provide power to more than a million consumers — used an old George Carlin comedy bit about driving to illustrate the competing tensions on utilities and electric co-ops trying to decarbonize without risking reliability.
Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, Carlin said, while anybody going faster is a maniac.
“We’re being pulled between those people who think we are going too fast and those who think we are going too slow,” he said, noting that two states his co-op operates in, New Mexico and Colorado, are much more green-energy oriented than the other two: Nebraska and Wyoming.
“There’s no map for this,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
He said the ability to generate electricity from fuel oil helped bail out Tri-State during the 2021 winter storm that caused the grid to collapse in Texas, resulting in an estimated 246 deaths. That makes it hard for utilities to ditch the reliability benefits of certain kinds of fossil fuel generation as quickly as some would like.
“We can make this happen and it is happening,” Highley said. He added that Tri-State, which got a B grade on the Sierra Club report, is on pace to have 50% of the electricity used by its members come from renewable sources by 2024 thanks to bountiful wind and solar resources, with an eventual goal of getting to 80% decarbonization, though that will still require some fossil fuel generation to stay in the mix.
“We’re going to clean up the grid and then we’re going to electrify everything,” he said.
Georgia Recorder Senior Reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this article.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.