Utility Companies Claim to Embrace Renewables, Yet Are Planning New Gas Plants

Contrary to the promises made by some of the United States’ largest utility companies to embrace renewables and shift away from the energy sources that are driving the climate emergency, a new report released Monday reveals that dozens of utilities “remain committed to fossil fuels.”

Compiled by the Sierra Club and Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the report — titled The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges — is the authors’ second to examine whether the nation’s utilities are genuine in their pledges to help solve the climate crisis.

A year after the authors’ inaugural report, nearly half of the 77 utilities included “made no progress or received a lower score” than in 2021, reported The Washington Post.

Each utility was assigned a score of zero to 100 by the group. These utilities are owned 50 companies that have the highest fossil fuel generation investments. The average score for all the companies was only 21.1, which is four points lower than 2021.

For companies that have publicly pledged to take climate action, the aggregate score was 23, suggesting “that most utilities’ corporate pledges are not translating into action.”

“Greenwashing continues to overtake climate pledges made by electric utilities,” said T.J. Osborne, federal policy manager at Dream.org.

The utilities were scored on the basis of their plans to completely retire coal, not build new gas infrastructure, or build clean energy infrastructure between 2022-2030.

The utilities have not made any progress in removing coal from their facilities since the 2021 report was published more than a year ago.

“The utilities in this report have plans to retire barely over a quarter of their coal generation, 28%, by the end of 2030,” the report reads. “Despite having a year and a half to make plans to retire dirty and polluting coal plants, this is only three percentage points higher than the anticipated 25% retirement of coal generation found in the first report. Ultimately, this is a far cry from the necessary commitment to retire 100% of coal generation by 2030.”

The utilities plan to add 308 million megawatt-hours of new wind and solar energy to the nation’s grid through 2030 — the equivalent of just 24% of their existing coal and gas production.

Half of the utilities plan to build new gas stations by 2030, which is nearly 38 gigawatts more than they had planned for in 2021.

“If these gas plants come online, they would emit an estimated 86 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMT CO2e) each year, equivalent to the annual emissions from over 18.5 million cars — more than all the cars in Texas, Florida, and New Jersey combined,” the report reads.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is the largest federally owned utility in America, received one of the lowest scores in this report. The TVA received what the report called “the lowest score” despite its pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 70% by 2020 and 80% by 2035, compared to 2005 levels. Post called “a remarkably low score of 1.73 out of 100.”

The utility intends to reduce its coal production to 3% by 2030. In addition, it claims that it will produce more than four gigawatts worth of new gas in the same time period. This will account for more half of its existing coal capacities.

“Even if TVA did retire some of its coal, it would be replacing it with another fossil fuel,” reads the report. “Replacing coal with a different fossil fuel will not achieve the emissions reduction needed — coal must be replaced by clean energy.”

The TVA’s failure to progress in its climate commitments since last year, when it scored a nine out of 100, was particularly alarming to the authors because the utility is owned by the federal government, which passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August.

The IRA invested close to $370 billion in clean power and incentivized utility use of renewable energy.

“For a utility of that size that is so connected to a federal administration with these big climate goals, it’s really entirely unacceptable,” Cara Bottorff, a managing senior analyst at the Sierra Club and a co-author of the report, told the Post.

The group argued that the utility “could be at the forefront of the transition off fossil fuels and pioneer the clean and just energy future we desperately need.”

“Instead, it is actively pursuing risky gas infrastructure that threatens to lock its 10 million customers into more decades of price volatility, pollution, and energy insecurity,” reads the report. “Professing climate goals without plans to back them up is textbook greenwashing.”

Duke Energy Corporation, a North Carolina-based parent company, was just 12.77 points out of 100. The company’s five subsidiaries generated 125 million megawatt-hours of coal and gas electricity in 2021, down from 131 million the previous year.

The company is planning to build more gas infrastructure through 2030 than any other — 5,400 megawatts, despite its claim that it is planning on a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Unfortunately,” reads the report, “Duke has remained committed to coal generation and this gas build-out since our last report, instead of shifting its focus in a meaningful way to a much larger clean energy buildout.”

Stokes is a social media guru. said Monday that following the passage of the IRA, “every utility should be ripping up their plans and charting a new course.”

“They have a massive opportunity for clean electricity and electrification,” she said. “Unfortunately, utilities like Duke are still dragging their feet.”