Climate Action

Major utilities will miss climate goals, says new study

Lewis Freeman is the Executive Director at Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance.

A new study concludes that three major utility companies — Dominion Energy, Duke Energy and Southern Company — are “missing the mark” in meeting their decarbonization targets to address climate change. “Investing in Failure,” released last week by Synapse Energy Economics, analyzes these companies’ goals to decarbonize their generating facilities. 

The report concludes that despite advertising campaigns claiming reduced emissions, the three companies have only taken minimal actions toward decarbonizing. Instead, all three remain on track to fall short of their 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Instead of moving investments to renewable energy, the companies in the report have continued pouring money into aging coal plants. They are even discouraging competition with solar through lowered rates and high fees on integrating solar facilities into their grids. Decarbonizing U.S. energy grids will require huge transformations in technology and resources, but the companies’ current efforts just aren’t keeping up.

The study also takes a critical, unflattering look at the investment that Dominion and Duke have made to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a pipeline that would transport fracked gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. Though the two companies will not directly own the Atlantic Coast Pipeline itself, they have contracted ownership of most gas transported on the pipeline.

Duke Energy is marketing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as “critical infrastructure that will allow [Duke] to bring low cost gas supply and economic development to the Southeast.” But the pipeline is expected to release 67 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year — the carbon equivalent of adding 14.5 million cars to the road for a year. This number doesn’t even include extra emissions caused by leaks.

The pipeline is projected to last 80 years, transporting 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas each day. How can Duke and Dominion be net or zero carbon by 2050 if they are building a pipeline intended to supply its own generators with natural gas that has a lifetime through 2100?

Construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was suspended in December 2018 after eight key permits were struck down by courts, due to appeals by environmental organizations of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA). These appeals have crippled the pipeline project by revealing the incomplete environmental impact analyses for the permits.

Beyond the shoddy environmental reviews, the actual need for the project has been seriously questioned. In a January study released by ABRA, risks to ratepayers and shareholders of the companies was highlighted. The ABRA study pointed out that “existing pipelines serving Virginia and the Carolinas have already increased in capacity by more than what the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would provide.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline isn’t needed, will harm the environment and will hinder the owner utilities from meeting their self-proclaimed climate goals. Curbing the worst impacts of climate change will require an overhaul of our energy grids, and we need to demand accountability from leading utility companies in this effort.

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