A solar energy park. (Zbynek Burival | Unsplash)
DENVER — A report released this week by the Sierra Club faults dozens of utilities that provide a major chunk of U.S. electric generation for failing to speed up their decarbonization efforts.
“For the sake of our communities and planet, we must do everything in our power to create a clean, renewable electric grid by 2030,” the Sierra’s Club’s “Dirty Truth” report says. “Utilities must lead this transition, but our research shows they are wholly unprepared to do their part. Clean energy is reliable and affordable; electric utilities have no excuse to delay and no time left to waste.”
The report, released Monday, is an update of a 2021 study the group did. The Sierra Club analyzed plans of 77 utilities that collectively supply about 40% of U.S. electric generation and gave out letter grades based on how well utilities, many with their own clean energy goals, were working to decarbonize.
“Most are still not on the path to achieve 80% clean electricity by 2030. Of the 77 utilities we studied, nearly half of them (44%) made no progress or received a lower score than in our previous report,” the Sierra Club said. “This disappointing inaction occurred despite a tumultuous 18 months of grid reliability crises, blackouts, energy price spikes and extreme weather events; many of these trace their roots in large part to utilities’ stubborn reliance on expensive and unreliable fossil fuels.”
To determine the grades, the Sierra Club looked at the latest versions of the utilities’ integrated resource plans, documents that lay out how they will meet future electric demand, evaluating how quickly they intend to retire coal plants and penalizing them for plans that include building new gas generation.
“If a company includes multiple scenarios in their IRP, we use the scenario they denote as their preferred scenario,” said Cara Bottorff, a Sierra Club managing senior analyst. “If they do not denote a preferred scenario, we use the scenario that is the worst case for gas (i.e., the one that would add the most gas) to demonstrate the largest amount of gas that the company is considering building.”
Overall, 56% of the utilities examined improved their scores, 9% made no progress and 35% got worse grades. You can check how your local utility did here.
The Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents investor-owned utilities, called the metrics “arbitrary” and dismissed the report as a “messaging document.”
“The reality is that existing nuclear generation and the flexibility provided by natural gas generation are what enabled the U.S. electric power industry to deploy 27 gigawatts of new renewables, reliably and cost-effectively, last year,” said Brian Reil, an EEI spokesman.
“The emissions reductions goals set by America’s investor-owned electric companies are firmly grounded in our current understanding of technology and economics, and they also reflect our responsibility to prioritize customer affordability and reliability.”
Reil noted that more than 40% of U.S. electricity is now generated by carbon-free resources and said electric utilities are investing in new technologies to deliver more.
“If the Sierra Club truly wants to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, they should consider joining the other environmental, industry and government leaders who are working together constructively to identify ways to overcome the barriers to building the transmission and other clean energy infrastructure we clearly need in order to deliver more resilient clean energy to customers,” he said.
At the Experience POWER conference for energy industry professionals Tuesday in Denver, the pace of the renewable energy transition was a major theme. Duane Highley, the CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association — a not-for-profit cooperative supplier which operates in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska and includes 42 electric distribution cooperatives and public power districts that provide power to more than a million consumers — used an old George Carlin comedy bit about driving to illustrate the competing tensions on utilities and electric co-ops trying to decarbonize without risking reliability.
Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, Carlin said, while anybody going faster is a maniac.
“We’re being pulled between those people who think we are going too fast and those who think we are going too slow,” he said, noting that two states his coop operates in, New Mexico and Colorado, are much more green-energy oriented than the other two: Nebraska and Wyoming.
“There’s no map for this,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
He said the ability to generate electricity from fuel oil helped bail out Tri-State during the 2021 winter storm that caused the grid to collapse in Texas, resulting in an estimated 246 deaths. That makes it hard for utilities to ditch the reliability benefits of certain kinds of fossil fuel generation as quickly as some would like.
“We can make this happen and it is happening,” Highley said. He added that Tri-State, which got a B grade on the Sierra Club report, is on pace to have 50% of the electricity used by its members come from renewable sources by 2024 thanks to bountiful wind and solar resources, with an eventual goal of getting to 80% decarbonization, though that will still require some fossil fuel generation to stay in the mix.
“We’re going to clean up the grid and then we’re going to electrify everything,” he said.
Wisconsin utilities push back against low scores
Wisconsin’s three largest electric power utilities all rated poorly in the Sierra report. Company representatives pushed back at the findings.
The Sierra Club gave Wisconsin Public Service an F, singling out the Green Bay power company for making no progress toward retiring coal-fired power. The report also rated WPS down for its plans to add 66 megawatts of gas-powered generating capacity by 2030 instead of moving toward the elimination of gas as a fuel by then. WPS is 8% of the way toward a goal of replacing existing fossil-fueled generation entirely with clean energy, according to the report.
We Energies received a D in the report. The Milwaukee-based utility is 41% of the way toward retiring all coal-fired power by 2030 and 11% of the way to replacing fossil fuel generation with clean energy, according to the Sierra Club.
“We strongly disagree with this report that not only ignores the facts but also discounts the importance of the ongoing investments we are making in renewables and keeping the lights on for customers,” said Brendan Conway, spokesman for We Energies and WPS, both part of WEC Energy Group.
Conway said the utilities should be credited for building Wisconsin’s first large-scale solar parks and operating the largest fleet of wind farms in the state. He called the stated intent at WEC Energies to spend $3.5 billion on new renewable energy generation by 2026 and stop using coal by 2035 “some of the most aggressive environmental goals in the industry.”
A Sierra Club press release that said WEC Energy Group had made “no progress” on its clean energy goals in the last year was “factually wrong” in light of new solar projects and groundbreaking on a new solar/battery park and a new wind park, he added.
Alliant Energy, which operates as Wisconsin Power & Light in Wisconsin, was also given a D grade. The report notes that WPL doesn’t plan to add any new gas generation by 2030 — a positive — and that it is 42% of the way toward retiring all coal-burning power generation by then. The utility is 16% of the way toward a goal of 100% clean-energy generation by then.
Responding to the report, Alliant spokeswoman Cindy Tomlinson said the utility is in the process of building 12 solar projects in Wisconsin generating a total of 1,100 megawatts, with two of them now in service, two more scheduled to come online before 2023, and the rest scheduled to be operational by the end of 2023.
While the company has delayed its timeline for retiring coal-fired generation in search of greater flexibility in managing its power capacity and to address supply chain problems, Tomlinson said Alliant is still on track to complete that process by mid-2026.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.