Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and Southern Company are not making investments consistent with their clean energy goals, according to a report released Monday from Synapse Energy Economics.
The three utilities make up 4.2% of total U.S. carbon emissions and 12.4% of U.S. power sector emissions, which constitute about a third of U.S. overall emissions, according to the report. All three utilities have ambitious carbon reduction goals — Duke and Dominion are aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while Southern is aiming for "low-to-no" emissions by that time.
But under the utilities' current plans, those goals will not be reached by 2030 if those companies keep their coal plants online as long as is currently planned and continue aggressive natural gas buildouts, according to the Synapse report, prepared for the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Majority Action.
Over 50 utilities across the U.S. have some sort of carbon reduction goal, according to the Smart Electric Power Alliance, but as more utilities aim for ambitious clean energy targets, some groups worry their actions may not match their commitments.
When Duke first announced its mid-century goals, for example, many were skeptical of the utility's strategy behind that plan, which relies heavily on natural gas buildouts through the 2030s. And Dominion's announcement earlier this year came alongside the purchase of an additional share of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which both utilities say will be critical to their long-term gas needs.
"The near-term actions [of these companies] aren't consistent," with a net-zero 2050 goal, or with the more incremental but still substantial carbon reductions needed to get to that mid-century figure, Bruce Biewald, founder and CEO of Synapse and co-author of the report told Utility Dive.
"[C]ontrary to what Southern Company, Dominion Energy, and Duke Energy say on their websites, in television ads, and in shareholder reports and pamphlets, the three companies are thus far taking minimal actions to decarbonize their electricity systems," according to the report. "[N]one of the three companies examined in this report will meet their 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals under their current resource plans."
Overall, the analysis found that 72% of coal plant retirements across the three companies have been replaced with natural gas, while an additional 22 GW of gas plant buildouts are projected across the utilities' service territories over the next 10 to 20 years. Dominion has plans to build out almost 4.3 GW of gas between 2022 and 2040, Duke has almost 15 GW planned between 2020 and 2034 and Southern is planning 2.4 GW between 2023 and 2028.
"Building a lot of new gas-fired capacity to the extent that it replaces coal ... it's lowering carbon, it's a bit of progress, but it's not the kind of thing that you do as a company if you are serious about a 2050 net-zero goal," said Biewald.
But according to Duke, investing in gas is consistent with what other research has found, pointing to a Massachussetts Institute of Technology study on nuclear power which includes some gas in its 2050 scenario.
"And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes the important role of natural gas in decarbonization in its 2014 and 2018 reports," spokesperson Phil Sgro told Utility Dive in an email. "Even in the 2018 1.5 degrees [Celcius] report, natural gas is projected to continue to be used for power generation in 2050," including carbon capture technologies.
The report suggested utilities look more broadly at system needs when going through their long-term resource planning, rather than remaining under the rigid assumption that one fossil fuel should replace another on the system. Utilities should consider replacing lost capacity with more dispersed resources in strategic locations on the grid, accompanied by demand response or energy efficiency resources, according to Synapse.
Another major barrier to these three utilities reaching their goals is their unambitious coal plant retirement schedules, according to the report.
70% of Dominion's coal-fired power remains online, and 83% of that power is not scheduled for retirement. Meanwhile, 89% of Southern's over 15 GW of coal has no planned retirement date. Duke has plans to retire 88% of its coal, but 49% of those retirements don't occur until after 2030, and the remaining 2.2 GW have no retirement date.
The three companies are also lagging behind other utilities across the country in their energy efficiency and renewables strategies.
None of the companies' subsidiaries crack the top 15 for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's scorecard, though Sgro noted Duke has still significantly reduced customer energy consumption and peak demand.
Though the utilities combined plan to add 14 GW of utility-scale solar over an unspecified period of time, the report notes the three companies are still too slow in adopting these resources.
Southern subsidiary Georgia Power has been the most successful in its solar additions, but only under mandate from state regulators, the report noted, while Mississippi and Alabama have each less than 500 MW online or planned. Dominion has almost 4 GW of solar planned, but similarly only made those plans when directed by legislators or regulators.
Meanwhile, Southern has no wind or energy storage planned, and Dominion has no energy storage plans, according to the report, which is based on the companies' planning and investment documents filed with regulators.
Duke has several gigawatts of utility-scale solar planned across its Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Progress territories, but only 24 MW of storage for its Ohio and Indiana service areas, suggesting the utility is missing a key opportunity to take advantage of those resources, the report noted.
"Over the next 15 years, Duke Energy Renewables is investing $500 million to integrate battery energy storage throughout the Carolinas," said Sgro. "These projects will increase battery storage capacity in the region twentyfold and deliver microgrid energy to previously underserved customers and communities."
Finally, the report finds that the utilities' grid modernization plans are not up to the critical task ahead of them. All three companies are underinvesting in tools such as advanced metering infrastructure and voltage optimization, among other things.
Overall, data gathering for this report was difficult, said Biewald. Several of the subsidiaries do not file long-term integrated resource plans, and data was often redacted unnecessarily, he said.
"That lack of transparency is really pretty appalling. And I think that there are occasions where certain information … is legitimately competitively sensitive," he said. "But I think in a lot of these cases it's really irresponsible to not make the data publicly available."
Southern declined to comment on the report. Dominion did not respond to requests for comment.