The first Earth Day was recognized on April 22, 1970, as a way to demonstrate support for environmental protection and eco-conscious decisions. Over 50 years ago, the main tenets of reducing air pollution, eliminating threats from toxic waste dumps, protecting endangered species, and reducing chemical hazards in commonly used materials. Back then, climate change wasn’t even a coined term in the common lexicon.
Fast-forward to today, and Earth Day is more important than ever to recognize, as the looming threat from climate change is shaping virtually every industry across the economy. Transportation is electrifying, factories are seeking more sustainable practices, customers are seeking out locally sourced foods, and more. But arguably no where else is a shift towards environmental consciousness that represents Earth Day happening more deliberately, thoughtfully, and urgently than in the energy sector.
Committing to reducing emissions in the name of preventing climate change has gone from fantasy at the turn of the century, when renewable energy sources made up 8% of the nation’s power generation (3/4 of which came from hydropower alone), to being closer to standard operating practice. Utilities are committing to 100% clean energy, states are mandating carbon reductions, and the pathway to a clean energy future is being paved by utilities today.
In recognition of Earth Day and all the positive progress being made by power producers thus far and the commitments to future action, we wanted to highlight some of the most major clean energy commitments across the U.S. utility sector—recognizing those who are going above and beyond for the future of our planet and the generations that will live on it!
1. First Major Utility to Commit to 100% Clean Energy: Xcel Energy
In December 2018, Xcel Energy made the commitment to go completely carbon free in its power generation by 2050. This announcement marked the first of major U.S. utilities (having nearly 4 million customers across its service area in the U.S. Midwest) making such a commitment, truly a watershed moment that represented the progress being sought after by Xcel as well as a sign of things to come across the power industry. And Xcel didn’t just make broad declarations without bringing action to back it up: the first pitstop the utility committed to towards this goal was being 80% carbon-free by 2030 and closing several coal-fired power plants 10 years before originally planned.
While Xcel gets well-deserved recognition for being the first major move towards complete clean energy commitment, they’ve also blazed a trail for others in the sector to follow suit.
2. Major Utility to Push Its Own Regulators to Enforce Greater Decarbonization: Dominion Energy
When Dominion Energy, the largest utility operator in the state of Virginia, set out its own net-zero goals in 2020, it did so on its own volition, recognizing the demand from customers and investors and the business sense it made to do so. In February of 2020, Dominion Energy announced their plans to go 100% net-zero emissions by 2050, upping it’s previous commitment of 80% emissions free by 2050 in its power sector and 80% methane-emissions free from natural gas by 2040. These commitments were huge from Dominion, and they reset what Virginians saw in their energy future. Where gas pipelines had previously been the major infrastructure of focus, these visions were replaced with hope that Virginia may become the offshore wind energy hub on the U.S. East Coast.
But Dominion’s commitment turned out to be just the first domino, as the Virginia State Legislature followed that up by passing the Clean Economy Act just weeks later that required a shut down of all carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. In this instance, the utility made the first move and then the state leaders upped the ante, showing that the state’s citizens will be the ultimate victors and both parties deserve praise for the commitments.
3. Impressive Plans to Walk the Walk on Clean Energy: Consumers Energy
From state legislatures to utility board rooms, the move to promise clean energy action has become expected and borderline routine. While that doesn’t take away from the impact of those commitments, it also means that looking at the concrete steps put into place by utilities is worth considering as well. One utility that has stood out in its tangible, concrete plants to make moves to fulfill its commitments is Consumers Energy in Michigan. In its Integrated Resources Plan published in 2019, Consumers Energy gained approval from state regulators to:
Shut down its major coal plant by 2023
Eliminate coal from its generation fleet entirely by 2040
Add 5 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy by 2030
Reduce emissions 90% by 2040
Having white papers promising what could happen is one thing, but Consumers Energy putting forth the plan and gaining necessary regulator approval is another one entirely. Consumers Energy gets an extra gold star for having its path well laid out.
4. Industry Recognized Leader in Major Utility Space: Southern California Edison
The utility industry is largely moving towards clean energy across the board, and as progress is made the leaders in this space are looking to their peers to see what lessons have been learned so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As such, looking at who the utility industry itself recognizes for progress towards clean energy provides some useful insights into where the rest of us should keep our eyes.
Recently, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA)—a non-profit organization working towards the clean energy future, which features over 700 utilities amongst its members—put out the results of the Utility Transformation Challenge that surveyed utility leaders and identified leaders who were facilitating the carbon-free utility of tomorrow. Given that, the utilities included in the top 10 list of the 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard should be considered especially valuable innovators towards clean energy—and among the major utility (in terms of size and prominence) honored by this leaderboard was Southern California Edison (SCE).
SCE should not be a surprising choice, given the utility has already achieved 50% of its 2045 carbon-free energy goals and is setting the pace when it comes to fostering transportation electrification in its service area, among other climate-focused initiatives.
5. Industry Recognized Leader in Municipal Utility Space: Seattle City Light
SEPA’s 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard did not just include major utilities, though, but it also highlighted some more local power providers who earned recognition and praise from their industry peers. Included in the top 10 list was Seattle City Light, a public municipal utility serving nearly 1 million in the city of Seattle and surrounding communities.
Despite being a municipal utility (albeit one of the larger ones in the United States), Seattle City Light still serves as a great example for many peer utilities. Seattle City Light was the first municipal utility in the country to own and operate a hydroelectric facility, and in fact it was the first power utility in the country to fully offset their carbon emissions—dating back to 2005. Carbon offsets are a band aid to provide climate benefits today, but long-term Seattle City Light has indeed shown unparalleled commitment and drive towards the clean energy transition.
6. Corporate Buyers Getting in on the Clean Energy Game: Amazon
Utilities are, of course, the main actors that have the agency to determine how pervasive clean energy is on their local grids, but that doesn’t mean other actors can’t have an impressive and outsized influence. In the corporate world, and increasing trend—particularly among tech giants—is to get involved with power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy. PPAs are an arrangement where third-party developers install, own, and operate an energy system that a private entity (whether corporations or otherwise) agrees to purchase the energy from for a pre-determined amount of time. PPAs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “allow the customer to receive stable and often low-cost electricity with no upfront cost, while also enabling the owner of the system to take advantage of tax credits and receive income from the sale of electricity.”
The benefit to the grid as a whole from PPAs is that they create a financial mechanism that encourages and enables more clean energy to be financed and built, reducing the overall carbon intensity of the grid. The amount of impact the private entity can have is directly proportional to the amount they have to spend on the PPA, and thus the entity with the deepest pockets is the one that can in fact do the most good to the market.
Enter Internet retail mammoth, Amazon. Just this week, Amazon announced that it’s investing in five utility-scale wind and solar generation projects across the country that are putting the titanic company on its dedicated path to be 100% renewable energy driven by 2025. If a company as large as Amazon can do it, it helps eliminate excuses from other corporations. Not only do Amazon’s actions directly lead to more renewables being built on the grid, but it sends a warning shot to the rest of the industry: the time for clean energy commitment is now.
7. State with the Most Aggressive Clean Energy Mandates: New York
Just as it’s fair to look at non-utility companies to recognize who’s doing the most for clean energy, so to is it valuable to look at the government bodies who are making the energy transition happen at a greater pace. While the federal government has typically been mired in legislative gridlock, a swinging pendulum of policies and priorities depending on the party in power, and a lack of a true and continued clean energy vision, state governments have largely been recognized as taking up the mantle for clean energy policy.
And when looking at the landscape of states and the actions towards clean energy, an argument can be made that New York is the true leader for the energy transition. In 2019, New York legislators passed what was deemed the most aggressive clean energy goals of any state, which mandated 70% of state electricity to be generated by renewables by 2030, up to 100% zero-emission generation by 2040 and economy-wide emissions dropping by 85% by 2050. And in the time since, New York has shown they mean it by investing in offshore wind energy, shuttering existing fossil fuel generation plants, and creating the type of clean energy jobs that will drive the green economy of tomorrow.
8. Utility Best Harnessing Energy Efficiency as a Clean Energy Tool: Eversource Energy
Earth Day, as mentioned, is more than just clean and renewable energy, rather it’s about every tool at our disposal towards environmental stewardship and eco-consciousness. In the world of utilities, that leads to the classic adage that a kilowatthour saved is just as valuable as a kilowatthour generated—but typically reduced energy use can be achieved for much cheaper than extra clean energy generation.
As such, it’s important to recognize the utilities who are best taking advantage of energy efficiency as well as clean energy. And according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Eversource Massachusetts outranks all its peers in its policies and programs that put forth energy savings. The ACEEE study cites that Eversource has achieved 3.1% energy savings compared with just two years ago while offering a broad range of programs that reach a vast customer base and a diversity of energy end uses. Eversource’s actions include:
Converting streetlights to LEDs
Working with social services agencies to reach out to low-income groups to design programs to serve them
Energy efficiency incentives for customers using cold storage for COVID-19 vaccines
Residential rebates for energy efficiency upgrades
And many more innovative offerings for their customers
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