Charts: Utilities sticking with fossil fuels despite climate pledges

A new Sierra Club report highlights the major U.S. utilities that plan to burn coal and build new fossil-gas infrastructure through at least 2030.

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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Electric utilities across the United States have pledged to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by shuttering fossil fuel power plants and investing in renewable energy. Yet by the end of this decade, many companies still plan to have large proportions of their existing coal generation online, and in the coming years, they’re planning to build significantly more gas-fired capacity.

The Sierra Club surveyed the expected 2030 energy mixes of the 77 U.S. utilities whose 50 parent companies are the most heavily invested in fossil fuels. In a recent report, the environmental group then graded the utilities based on their plans to retire coal plants, build new gas plants, and invest in wind, solar and other renewable sources. Many companies earned D’s and F’s.

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These major utilities are slated to retire a total of about 173 million megawatt-hours of existing coal generation by 2030. But more than 2.5 times that amount — 456 million MWh of coal — is not scheduled to be retired in the next eight years.

When it comes to adding new electricity capacity, utilities plan to bring online 150,000 total megawatts of solar, wind and energy storage by 2030. But they’re also planning to build nearly 38,000 megawatts of new gas capacity by the end of the decade.

The majority of parent utilities are not on track to meet the Biden administration’s goal of 80 percent clean electricity by 2030, according to the report. Today, nearly 40 percent of U.S. electricity generation comes from nuclear energy and renewable sources. 

We desperately need our utility companies to stop greenwashing and sowing climate denial and get serious about clean energy and real climate leadership,” Holly Bender, Sierra Club’s senior director of energy campaigns, said earlier this month.

Duke Energy topped Sierra Club’s charts for remaining coal generation and planned new gas capacity. The report gave failing grades to Duke’s subsidiaries in the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky, and a D for its utility in Indiana. 

Ben Goldey, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, told Canary Media that the parent company is well positioned” to meet its goal of achieving net-zero emissions from electricity generation by 2050. The Charlotte, North Carolina–based company has one of the most ambitious clean energy transformations, with the largest planned coal retirement in the U.S. electric utility industry,” he wrote in an email. 

We believe in a balanced pace of change and are decarbonizing as fast as we can while also maintaining affordability and reliability,” he said. For Duke and other major utilities, that apparently means hanging on to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

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Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.