It’s undeniable–climate change is a big deal. Planetary temperatures are fast approaching major tipping points (1.5 degrees Celsius) that will plunge our society into a broad-scale global catastrophe. There is still time to prevent the worst outcomes, but our window for action is rapidly closing. Recent global, national, and local developments, such as the targets and strategies from COP26 and U.S. climate bills and commitments, provide some hope; however, we must put our money where our mouth is and do the work.
The electric power sector produces 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is a major climate contributor. Clean energy deployment is essential if we seriously want to mitigate the largest climate impacts. And when making a clean transition, there are a variety of reasons why the Southeastern United States should be a particular target: high per capita energy consumption, energy intensive economies, continued reliance on coal and natural gas for electricity generation and demands of a growing population.
The Southeast is growing faster than any other region (see map below from the U.S. Census); the State of Mississippi is the only state that has lost population in the last decade (2010-2020). In addition, Southeast energy consumption per capita and per unit of GDP is higher than the national average but has remained stable in recent years. As things stand, area geography includes legacy coal systems, and despite climate imperatives to reduce/eliminate fossil fuel consumption, utility IRPs show generation from gas plants forecast well into the future.
To understand how and when we might accelerate clean energy deployment, it’s important to look at all these factors from the perspective of state policy and utility leadership.
Southeastern utilities have all pledged net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with the exception of NextEra, whose Chairman and CEO, Jim Robo, believes a goal is “disingenuous.” This is a bit disheartening, considering NextEra is one of the largest solar and wind power producers and thus a frontrunner in the clean energy space. Achieving net zero and transitioning to renewable fuels is a necessity for climate progress, but utility IRPs show continued natural gas buildout, with some saying that they don’t have a clear path to eliminating natural gas plants. Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning claims natural gas will remain in planning until “technology emerges that can affordably and efficiently replace it.” A frustrating statement from a climate perspective, considering how quickly renewable energy is growing cheaper, more innovative, and more reliable.
The table below shows the carbon neutrality goals for a few Southeastern utilities.
If we want to limit warming below the crucial 1.5-degree mark, it requires retiring existing plants by 2030, but coal generation currently remains on the agenda long past that date. Let’s look at two key data points: From 2010-2019 over 100 MW of gas plants were built across the United States, and Duke Energy’s 54 million MWh of coal generation from 2019 shows only 11 percent retiring by 2030. Duke Energy’s most recent IRP has six generation paths for its electricity mix, one which replaces most of the coal with natural gas. Another calls for adding battery storage and renewables. Which one ultimately gets chosen remains unanswered.
In the United States, thirty states, Washington, D.C., and two territories have active renewable or clean energy requirements, while an additional three states and one territory have set voluntary renewable energy goals. Within the Southeast, only two have a binding clean energy state requirement (VA, NC) and one has a voluntary goal (SC). The Virginia Clean Economy Act has a 100 percent clean energy standard by 2045/2050, but the new Governor, Glenn Youngkin, may not be as supportive as former Governor Northam. Recent discussions to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) give an insight into his leanings.
North Carolina has had a renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standard since 2017, and in recent years, Governor Roy Cooper called for significant climate action in Executive Orders 80 and 246. The recent passage of HB 951 puts EO 80 goals into action; the North Carolina Utilities Commission must “take all reasonable steps” to reduce CO2 emissions from electric generating facilities in the state by 75 percent (from 2005 levels) and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Executive Order 246 upped the ante with a focus on vehicle electrification and environmental justice. Looking to South Carolina, the state has a voluntary renewable energy portfolio standard, and therefore it lacks the teeth of action in Virginia and North Carolina.
Though not everyone has state-level action now, promises to switch to 100 percent renewable energy over the next few decades are coming in from Southeastern cities and counties: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Orlando, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Florida, Asheville, Wake County, City of Durham, and Raleigh, North Carolina, to name a few.
What Does All This Mean for Our Climate?
Clean energy progress among U.S. utilities is uneven because many are struggling to retire fossil fuel-fired plants. There is also a big gap between environmental community/Biden administration, both of which advocate for zero carbon emissions from the U.S. electricity sector by 2035, and utilities that still rely on coal and natural gas for most of their generation capacity. So several questions remain on what this means for our climate:
(1) How will utilities eliminate natural gas power plants from their generation if it is viewed that these plants provide flexibility to meet peak power needs? Are renewables and energy storage with critical investments in infrastructure enough?
(2) Will natural gas peaker plants become stranded assets (like many coal facilities are now) if the falling renewable energy/storage costs make them the least cost generation choice? RMI analysis shows 60 gigawatts of new gas plants are already economically challenged by those technologies. And by the mid-2030s, existing gas plants will be under threat.
(3) How do winter peaking demands evident in the Carolinas impact the renewable energy/energy storage solution as a natural gas alternative?
(4) With North Carolina and Virginia as the only two Southeastern states mandating carbon reductions, they can force out fossil fuel projects. But can they alone carry the entire region?
All these questions are thorny and not easily answered. But our climate does not have the luxury of putting off hard decisions.