Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

These 25 utilities are united by one big goal: 80% less CO2 by 2030

Dealing with climate change means removing fossil fuels from the power grid ASAP. A diverse and growing group of utilities is leading that effort.
By Julian Spector

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Two men in white hard hats and safety vests slot a solar panel into place. A craggy mountain range is in the background.
Solar installers at work in Boulder, Colorado (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

A new cohort is forcefully pushing back on the doubters who don’t think rapid utility-sector decarbonization is feasible: the utilities themselves.

A decade after the utility industry balked at the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan regulations, just about every large utility in the U.S. has promised to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury. But a growing subset of the industry isn’t waiting a couple of decades to act: They’re pushing for 80% carbon reductions by 2030.

Twenty-five utility companies have entered the 2030 Club” by enacting ambitious, voluntary goals for that timeframe, above and beyond any state-level mandates that apply to them. The Smart Electric Power Alliance coined the term in a recent analysis, intended to recognize that higher level of ambition and help those utilities achieve their goals. After all, there’s no way to know who will be in charge by the time 2050 rolls around, but to cut emissions by 80% or secure 80% clean generation portfolios by the end of this decade requires action and investment right now.

The organizations on the list span the full breadth of the industry: municipals, cooperatives, public power companies and large investor-owned utilities. The West Coast is well represented, but the companies hail from across the country, not just from states with assertive climate policies. And they include utilities that own considerable power-plant capacity as well as so-called wires” utilities, which don’t produce electricity but maintain the lines to deliver power to customers.

There’s leadership being demonstrated across these ownership profiles, across geographies, across operational characteristics,” said Lakin Garth, director of emerging technologies at the Smart Electric Power Alliance. If we can show that it’s happening across the country — red state, blue state, green state — that’s important.”

The whole list owes an intellectual debt to Xcel Energy, the eight-state utility with a leading presence in Colorado and Minnesota. Xcel got out in front of its large utility peers in late 2018 when it publicly committed to cut emissions by 80% by 2030 from its 2005 baseline. That groundbreaking pledge asserted that the technological pathway was already clear enough: Xcel could affordably” hit that target by deploying currently available” wind, solar and batteries. Beyond that, zeroing out emissions would require technologies not yet commercially available.

A bold target doesn’t mean much without a plan to reach it, and Xcel happened to file that for its Colorado utility footprint earlier this month. It’s a proposal for state regulators to sign off on, but it also reads like a blueprint for other utilities looking to decarbonize fast.

Xcel wants to cease burning coal by 2030 while investing in coal plant communities to help them transition to new forms of employment and tax revenue. The utility wants to double renewable generation in the system by building out 3,400 megawatts of wind, 1,970 megawatts of solar and 1,170 megawatts of grid storage.

That would all cost about $15 billion, but Xcel said in a statement that federal incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act would cover $10 billion of that. It’s not immediately clear how Xcel reached that number — the flagship tax credits for clean power plant investments cover up to half the upfront cost, but only if projects meet conditions for labor standards, domestic content, and locating in communities economically affected by the energy transition. Xcel’s use of federal largesse constitutes a prime example of what Princeton energy-system modeler Jesse Jenkins described to Canary Media as a chief effect of the legislation: The federal government just put clean energy on sale, for everyone, everywhere.”

Xcel is even giving itself a taste of those not-yet-commercially-viable gadgets that could eventually allow it to move beyond its 80 percent goal to a fully carbon-free grid. It will install two iron-air battery systems from startup Form Energy at outgoing coal plants. This novel grid battery is designed to cost-effectively store clean energy and deliver it for 100 hours or more — enough to ride through several days without much wind or solar generation, for instance. The Department of Energy recently selected those projects to receive a portion of a $325 million grant funding for long-duration energy storage, meaning Xcel customers get a better deal for trying out an unproven but potentially transformative clean technology.

The other members of the 2030 Club are taking differing approaches based on their geography and business model. Wires utilities, Garth noted, focus their commitments on preparing the grid to receive an influx of renewables and to supply a growing array of electrified buildings and vehicles. Many utilities on the list are expanding efforts to help customers manage their demand through efficiency, demand response and virtual power plants, which link up energy devices to respond to signals from the grid.

Collectively, these utilities are showing just how much grid transformation is possible in a short time frame. But the 25-company list leaves room for hundreds of other utilities that could pick up their pace.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.