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OCTOBER 18,2020 - forbes
U.S. Utility Companies Rush To Declare Net-Zero Targets

Utility companies across the U.S. are rushing to set net-zero emissions targets by or before 2050, a trend now so ubiquitous it threatens to make any utilities without net-zero targets look like rebels.

But many of the utilities also plan to build out their natural gas infrastructure — a fact that some critics, including in a recent report by accounting firm Deloitte, say may not be compatible with their net-zero ambitions.

North Carolina-based utility Duke Energy became the latest to embrace new green targets late last week when it committed to reducing methane emissions in its natural gas business to net-zero by 2030. The plans are an update of Duke’s earlier 2019 pledge to halve overall carbon emissions by 2030 and eliminate them entirely by 2050.

Duke also said it would double its renewable portfolio from eight gigawatts to 16 gigawatts by 2025, and phase out its “coal-only” generation units in the Carolinas by 2030.

It is far from the only utility to tout what it calls bold plans to evolve away from fossil fuels, long the backbone of the staid electric utility sector. Virtually all of the biggest utilities in the U.S. have announced some form of net-zero target:

Three weeks ago, New Orleans-based Entergy said that it would achieve net-zero carbon generation by 2050. The company owns around 30 gigawatts of generation capacity, including eight gigawatts of nuclear power, and has roughly 3 million utility customers.
In May, Atlanta-based Southern Company , which has nine million customers, said it would reach “enterprise-wide” net-zero operations by 2050, replacing a less ambitious greenhouse gas reduction strategy it made in 2018.
In February, Richmond-based Dominion Energy promised to reach net-zero methane and carbon emissions by 2050. Dominion also said it would “decrease methane emissions by 65% by 2030 and 80% by 2040, from 2010 levels.” Its goals are partly the result of new laws that Virginia, its home state, introduced after Democrats took control of government in 2018. Dominion will now be required to retire all fossil fuel generation by 2045.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has said it will reach 100% carbon-free generation by 2050 and will reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 from 2005 levels. Xcel operates in eight states in the West and Midwest, supplying electricity and natural gas to some 5 million customers.
New Jersey public utility Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) has a goal of cutting emissions from its power generation segment by 80% by 2046, from 2005 levels. And it, too, wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across its fleet by 2050. Like Dominion Energy, PSEG has been prodded by clean energy mandates in its home state.

Amid the plethora of net-zero emissions targets, abstainers stick out. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, with 11.8 million customers and end-users, is among the few major U.S. utility companies that have so far declined to adopt net-zero emissions targets. The decision may have to do with the famed financier’s investment philosophy: Buffett has said that his political views should remain separate from his investments.

Gas gums up the game plan

While environmentalists have said that the hard targets utility companies have adopted are encouraging, critics question whether many of them can actually be reached.

In a report last month, accounting firm Deloitte warned that the strategies U.S. utilities are counting on to decarbonize — widespread energy storage, “renewable natural gas,” beefed-up monitoring of emissions — may not be enough to achieve net-zero in time to meet declared targets. None of those technologies are yet widely deployed.

One major issue, the report says, is utility companies` plan to keep building natural gas plants and pipelines. Citing projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Deloitte says that, because of this continued build-out, the gradual reduction of electricity sector emissions that has occurred since the late 2000s will plateau sometime between 2025 and 2030, “rather than accelerate as would be needed to achieve full decarbonization by 2050.”

Critics have taken aim at Duke Energy’s decarbonization plans because it, too, wants to keep building more natural gas assets. In plans it filed for the Carolinas last month, five of the six “integrated resource plans” Duke presented added new gas to its system, according to the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), which tracks utilities’ decarbonization progress and says it works to counter misinformation on renewable energy.

“The short version is that Duke`s plans to expand its fossil gas infrastructure still call the integrity of its net-zero carbon goal into question,” said EPI researcher Kelly Roache in emailed comments.

Like some other utilities, Duke is also counting heavily on offsetting emissions through the use of "renewable natural gas," or RNG. RNG is essentially methane captured from livestock farms, landfills and other sources of rotting organic material which is then used as a substitute for methane piped up from underground. The increased use of RNG as a way to reduce emissions from agriculture has been welcomed by environmentalists — excrement from livestock farms releases prodigious amounts of methane into the atmosphere — but, like other forms of greenhouse gas offsets, it creates the risk that utilities will use it as a crutch to avoid exiting the natural gas business sooner.

The American Gas Association, a trade group that counts Duke as a member, has promoted RNG not just because it is sustainable but also as a way to placate critics who say the industry isn’t doing enough to fight climate change. For example, internal notes from a 2018 meeting of the American Gas Association, obtained by the non-profit Climate Investigations Center, recommend that member organizations “[c]onsider how technologies to decarbonize the pipeline can serve as a conduit to environmental organizations, thereby seeking to mitigate the opposition’s fervor against infrastructure expansion.”

Of course, some utilities do plan to get out of the gas business. Dominion Energy, for one, plans to complete a roughly $10 billion sale of its natural gas business in coming weeks. Yet while the sale may bolster the green credentials of Dominion, it does not mean that the sold natural gas assets will be retired any earlier than planned. In fact, the deal could mean they last even longer they would have otherwise: the new owner will be Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Read more: https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottcarpenter/2020/10/15/us-utility-companies-rush-to-declare-net-zero-targets/#6b85561b693b