Utilities still moving way too slow on clean energy

Despite historic wind, solar and battery subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act, U.S. utilities remain hooked on fossil fuels.
By Jeff St. John

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In the foreground is a large solar array. In the background are the stacks of a conventional fossil power plant
(Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Very few U.S. utilities are taking the real-world action needed to combat the worst harms of climate change. And with the tens of billions of dollars in clean energy incentives created by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, utilities have even less excuse for delay.

These are the conclusions from the Sierra Club’s latest report tracking how many utilities are unprepared” to comply with the Biden administration’s pledge to cut U.S. electricity-sector emissions by 80 percent by 2030 compared to a 2005 baseline.

That’s admittedly an aggressive decarbonization target compared to the pledges from many large U.S. utilities to zero out their carbon emissions by 2050. But it’s in line with what’s needed to deal with the climate crisis, and even the utilities that have set that 80 percent goal for themselves are mostly failing to take the steps needed to meet them, Sierra Club warns.

The utility industry is not moving at the pace that’s necessary to respond to the climate crisis,” Leah Stokes, an energy policy analyst, said in a statement introducing the report. They still don’t have adequate plans to retire dirty coal plants, stop building gas plants, and build new clean energy. That’s what we know they have to do.”

The new report is the third in a series tracking 77 U.S. utilities whose 50 parent companies are the most heavily invested in existing or planned coal and fossil gas plants. To earn a top grade on the report’s A to F scale, utilities must be on course to close all existing coal plants by 2030, halt plans to build new gas plants, and deploy much more solar, wind and other carbon-free generation capacity, along with batteries and other energy storage resources.

Sierra Club’s first report in 2021 found that only two utilities — Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and AEP’s Public Service Company of Oklahoma — earned an A. Meanwhile, some of its worst performers included big utilities with much-publicized goals of reaching net-zero carbon by 2050, including FirstEnergy, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and Southern Company, as well as those with no stated goals such as Berkshire Hathaway.

The second report in 2022 found little improvement. The utilities on the list still planned to keep a substantial amount of coal-fired generation open past 2030 — two and a half times more capacity than they planned to retire. And while they collectively had plans for 150 gigawatts of new solar, wind and energy storage by 2030, they also planned to build nearly 38 gigawatts of new gas capacity by then.

The latest report does note that just over half of the utilities surveyed — 57 percent — have improved their metrics since 2022, largely driven by a significant increase in planned deployments of clean energy. But 12 percent had made no progress and 31 percent of them had fallen in their scores, with most receiving a D (26 percent) or an F (31 percent).

Two-thirds of existing coal capacity remains on schedule to keep operating past 2030, and only 20 of the 77 companies plan to be entirely coal-free by 2030, the new report finds. And the amount of new gas-fired power plants planned for construction by 2030 jumped to 53 gigawatts.

Two charts showing how much coal the utilities plan to retire and how much gas they plan to build through 2030
(Sierra Club)

This sluggish progress over the last year is particularly concerning, given the drastic change in the planning landscape due to the passage of the IRA,” the report states. 

There are entrenched financial incentives that push utilities to prefer fossil-fueled power plants over clean energy.

Many utilities earn guaranteed rates of return for the capital they invest in new generation capacity, with those costs passed on to their customers in the form of bill increases. In states where utilities can own and operate their own gas-fired power plants but must compete with third-party developers of clean energy projects, this creates an incentive structure that encourages them to pursue the more lucrative option. These incentives are even stronger for investor-owned utilities in states with vertically integrated energy markets — the type of utility serving most of the U.S. population — which are obligated to maximize shareholder returns above all else.

Utilities also face financial penalties for closing down power plants before they’ve earned back their construction costs via electricity sales. And utilities and regulators remain leery of replacing conventional power plants that can be ramped up and down to meet electricity demand with renewable energy resources whose power output relies on the wind and the sun.

But ever-cheaper lithium-ion batteries can store hours of excess wind and solar power to cover those gaps. The tax credits offered by the Inflation Reduction Act provide enough of a financial boost to make the combo of clean energy and energy storage less costly than newly built gas plants in almost all circumstances, according to an analysis by climate think tank RMI. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) The same tax credits also make clean energy and energy storage an increasingly cost-effective option for replacing almost all the country’s remaining coal plants, according to analysis by think tank Energy Innovation.

These pressures have played out in regulatory battles over utility investment plans across the country. Duke Energy, which operates in six states, is sparring with environmental and consumer groups in North and South Carolina over its proposal to build about 2 gigawatts of new gas plants in the region — the costs of which it can fully recover from ratepayers. Duke’s opponents have commissioned studies that show more large-scale solar and battery systems could deliver lower-cost energy to Duke’s customers — but under state law, Duke may only own half of the solar-battery projects built to meet its future needs, with third-party developers able to compete to build the other half.

The sheer scale of the clean energy resources that must be built to achieve an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 is daunting. Duke plans to build about 12 gigawatts of wind and solar power through 2030, the fourth-largest clean power expansion tracked in Sierra Club’s new report. But that’s only enough to replace about one-fifth of its fossil-fuel generation, the report notes.

Clean energy growth faces barriers beyond cost. Solar and wind projects across the country are looking at yearslong delays in connecting to power grids. Opposition to building clean energy projects from communities and local and state governments is also slowing development.

But the Sierra Club report points out that many utilities that cite these barriers to clean-energy progress are also failing to incorporate the financial and regulatory boosts coming from the Inflation Reduction Act. Only a handful of utilities have baked the law’s investment tax credits into the cost-benefit equations that determine the mix of clean power versus fossil-fueled power plants they plan to build over the coming years.

Utilities represented by the Edison Electric Institute trade group are also fighting plans from the Biden administration to impose emissions limits on existing fossil-fueled power plants via regulations being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the report states.

Even utilities earning better grades from Sierra Club have a long way to go to achieve their carbon goals. Florida Power and Light, which is largely permitted to build and earn a rate of return on the majority of clean energy projects in its service territory, received a B grade for its plan to retire all of its coal plants by 2030, and while it built 4 gigawatts of new gas plants since 2019, it has no more in its future plans.

As a subsidiary of NextEra, a utility holding company that has pledged to eliminate carbon emissions by 2045, FPL plans to build more than 15 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030. That’s only one-third of its existing fossil generation, the report notes, which is why the utility did not get an A grade. But FPL has upped its clean energy targets from last year, when its plan accounted for replacing only 16 percent of its fossil generation — a change it has credited to Inflation Reduction Act incentives that have made clean energy paired with batteries a third to nearly half as costly as they were before.

The Sierra Club report highlights other utilities taking this more aggressive — if still too slow — approach to cutting carbon, such as Xcel Energy, the eight-state utility with a large presence in Colorado and Minnesota that led the move toward voluntary utility decarbonization commitments in 2018.

But as the report points out, every utility — even those leading on clean energy — needs to do more, faster. Especially given the historic opportunity presented by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.