In the Southeast, ‘Public Energy Enemy No.1’ Has Lots of Company

EWG and our allies have branded Duke Energy as Public Energy Enemy No. 1 for its short-sighted strategy of continuing to build expensive, polluting coal and natural gas plants instead of fully embracing cheaper, cleaner solar and wind power and energy efficiency. We also dismissed Duke’s announcement last month to be “net carbon neutral” by 2050 as a greenwashing scheme.

But as the nation’s investor-owned electric utility, Duke, based in Charlotte, N.C., has lots of foot-dragging company among large monopoly utilities in its home region.

“Of the six major power providers in the Southeast – Southern Company, Duke Energy, PPL, Dominion, Entergy, and TVA [the Department of Energy’s Tennessee Valley Authority] five could replace every single megawatt of their coal-fired capacity now with cheaper renewable energy,” Michael Boyle writes this week in Forbes. “Meanwhile, clean energy portfolios are cheaper to build than nearly all of the natural gas projects planned across the U.S.”

Boyle is director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate policy think tank. Pointing to an interactive map from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, he notes that more than 40 U.S. utilities have announced some sort of carbon reduction plan. But utility hype for a “net carbon neutral” goal, like Duke’s, or a “low- to no-carbon” plan, like Southern Company’s, should be taken with a big-rig truckload of salt.

According to Boyle, replacing many of the big Southeastern utilities’ coal-fired power with renewables now would be one-fourth cheaper than letting the carbon-spewing dinosaurs run for their operational lifetime. Yet Duke and Southern Company are planning on keeping coal plants running for another three decades or longer, sabotaging the urgent battle to head off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.  

He also calls out Duke, Southern Company and the TVA as poster children for “the national blind faith in gas” manifested in utilities’ plans for $120 billion in new gas plants and pipelines. All but 10 percent of that polluting, climate-warping infrastructure, Boyle says, can be avoided with a clean energy portfolio of wind, solar, efficiency, demand response and storage. 

In the past three years, state governments have handed out more than $15 billion in ratepayer-financed bailouts of failing coal and nuclear plants. If utilities win regulators’ approval for a huge fleet of unneeded natural gas plants, expect utilities to come calling for more bailouts as the rapidly falling cost of renewables renders those facilities “uneconomic,” to use the industry’s euphemism.

“There’s simply no good reason for utilities in the Southeast U.S. to keep burning coal and building new gas [plants] when they have an abundance of compellingly cheap solar energy resources at hand,” Boyle concludes. “So what are these utilities waiting for?”

We wonder the same thing.

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