The top electricity providers in the country are going renewable much more slowly than smaller companies, according to data reported Tuesday by sustainability group Ceres.
The biggest 100 companies account for 85 percent of America’s electricity — and emissions are even more consolidated: A quarter of electricity’s carbon, mercury, NOx and SO2 emissions come from five big companies, according to the new report, Benchmarking Air Emissions. Notably, though, the top 100 producers only get 4 percent of their power from non-hydro renewable resources, such as wind and solar, while producers outside the top 100 already get 20 percent of their energy from these no-carbon sources.
Partly, explained Ceres’ Dan Bakal, this is because it’s harder to make a dent in a large company’s portfolio. “If you have a massive power company — for them to go from 2 percent to 3 percent means they are adding a significant amount of renewables to their mix,” he told ThinkProgress. But that doesn’t account for the discrepancy in rate. Smaller companies make up 15 percent of our electricity generation, so their rapid adoption of wind and solar technologies — which have boomed in recent years — is still meaningful.
At some point, transitioning to no-carbon sources is something larger companies will need to do, as well. “By 2050, we really do need to be getting to a predominantly renewables-based economy,” Bakal said.
Ironically, the more quickly large companies invest in wind and solar, the faster costs will decline, creating an economic, clean-energy snowball effect. But some of the largest utilities in the country are not in the most renewable-friendly areas. In fact, they are largely in areas that are heavily coal-dependent, and coal, though it provides less than a third of U.S. electricity, accounts for 70 percent of emissions from the sector. Utilities in these areas are mostly giant monopolies, subject to regulation, which can make the transition more difficult.
“They are operating in a part of the country that has has been less eager to lead on renewable energy, and where state legislatures are less likely to mandate it,” Nachy Kanfer, deputy director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told ThinkProgress.
AEP — one of the biggest electricity companies in the country — owns Kentucky Power, providing electricity to 170,00 customers in that state. AEP has repeatedly appeared at the top of the annual Ceres report. Despite AEP investments in recent years, Kentucky still gets nearly all its electricity from coal-fired power plants — and its electricity is the most carbon-intensive in the nation, according to the report.
“More of the big boys will start getting in this game, and they already are.” Kanfer said. “AEP has this incredible progress story to tell — and its an inspiring progress story to tell. But AEP is still one of the biggest burners of coal in the western hemisphere.”
Utilities in other coal states have also been slower to move away from that source. It’s big business: Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia all export more than twice the amount of electricity than they use — and almost all of it is coal-powered. Those states, along with Indiana, are also in the top five of CO2 emissions per watt of electricity produced. Ironically, that means residents in those states are exposed to greater risk of pollution from coal ash and power plant emissions, while not even using the electricity.
Overall, carbon emissions from electricity have decreased by 12 percent since 2008, the first year of the report, but that sector is still the largest contributor of America’s carbon emissions, even greater than transportation.
But that might be set to change. The EPA’s upcoming Clean Power Plan, expected to be released in August, will offer new standards for carbon emissions from power plants. Under the rule, states will be required to reduce their electricity sector’s carbon emissions, but are expected to have a great deal of flexibility on how to design their compliance plans.
EPA regulation can be incredibly effective in reducing emissions, the report shows. Ground-level ozone-causing compounds, NOx and SO2, have significantly decreased since 1990, when new rules governing those emissions were added to the Clean Air Act. Since 1990, NOx and SO2 emissions from power plants have dropped by 80 percent and 74 percent, respectively, the report found.
Those dramatic declines likely had broad, positive health impacts, as ground-level ozone — which greats smog — poses a serious health risk. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed lowering the national air quality standards for ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 65 or 70 ppb, based on the newest scientific data on the dangers of breathing these toxins.
Renewable energy, of course, emits neither carbon nor the compounds that cause ground-level ozone. In the past several years, the renewable energy sector has experienced an incredible boom— despite the slow adoption from the nation’s largest utilities.
“[The fact that] we’ve gotten this far on renewable energy already, mostly without the part of the biggest players… is an amazing story,” Kanfer said. “The biggest power producers are so far behind, when they get in the game, the pace of progress will increase dramatically.”
Source: Climate Central. Reproduced with permission.