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Climate campaigners outside Duke Energy Center

Attendees protest in front of the Duke Energy Center on August 19, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Duke Energy is planning to generate more than 5,400 megawatts of gas through 2030, despite climate commitments it has made. (Photo: Mike Comer/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

Report Reveals How Utilities' Climate Pledges Amount to 'Textbook Greenwashing'

Despite the passage of nearly $370 billion in renewable energy funding, the nation's utilities are squandering "a massive opportunity for clean electricity and electrification."

Julia Conley

Contrary to 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.

The group assigned a score between zero and 100 to each of the utilities, which are owned by 50 parent companies that are the most invested in fossil fuel generation. The aggregate score for all the companies was just 21.1, up only four points from 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 based on their plans to fully retire coal, to build no new gas infrastructure, and to build clean energy infrastructure between 2022 and 2030.

Since the 2021 report was released more than a year and a half ago, the utilities have made little progress in taking action to retire coal.

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

"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.

About half of the utilities have plans to build new gas plants totaling nearly 38 gigawatts through 2030, compared to 36 gigawatts they had planned as of 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), the largest federally owned utility in the U.S., had one of the lowest scores in the report. Despite pledging to reduce its carbon emissions by 70% by the end of the decade and 80% by 2035 compared to 2005 levels, the TVA was given what the Post called "a remarkably low score of 1.73 out of 100."

The utility plans to retire just 3% of its coal production by 2030 and says it will build more than four gigawatts of new gas over that time period, accounting for more than half of its existing coal capacity.

"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 nearly $370 billion in clean energy and incentivized the use of renewable energy for utilities.

"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."

North Carolina-based Duke Energy Corporation was one of the lowest-scoring parent companies examined in the report, earning a score of just 12.77 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."

On social media, Stokes 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."


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