With four states, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., and more than 100 cities setting mandates to reach 100% zero-carbon and/or renewable energy in their electricity supply, the momentum of the 100% renewable energy movement is undeniable.
This has not gone un-noticed by utilities, and over the last week two more made their own pledges to reach 100% carbon-free power. However, in many cases these appear to be at least partially attempts by these companies to ride on the PR coat-tails of state commitments.
Last week Avista, which provides electricity to 388,000 customers in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho announced a commitment to serve its customers with 100% clean electricity by 2045, and a carbon-neutral supply of electricity by the end of 2027.
The catch? The majority of Avista’s customers are located in Washington, and yesterday Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed into law SB 5116 (bill text), which requires that the state’s utilities move to 100% carbon-neutral power by 2030, and to eliminate fossil fuels in their procurement entirely by 2045.
Incidentally, this makes Washington the fourth state and sixth state-level jurisdiction (including Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.) to mandate a move to 100% zero-carbon electricity. And four of these six commitments have come over the course of the last three to four months.
And in the state where the majority of its customers are located, Avista is merely pledging to meet the carbon-neutral portion of a new mandate three years earlier than required by law.
PNM: Besting the state by 5 years
For Avista, it can at least be said that its customers in Northern Idaho will benefit from its mandate, and in this it joins Idaho Power, which was the second investor-owned utility known to pv magazine to set a timeline to entirely decarbonize its procurement of electricity.
Whereas Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), which announced a 100% emissions-free target by 2040 yesterday on Earth Day, has no such choice. The utility is already subject to the mandate signed by New Mexico Governor Lujan last month, but says that it will be meeting this mandate five years early.
PNM says that it was already on a path for its electricity to be 70% emissions-free by 2032. Some of this is due to contracts with solar plants to supply electricity to Facebook data centers, and some may come from contracts to buy electricity from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona.
Dragging the utility sector forward
So while the pledges by Avista and PNM are both voluntary and follow mandates that would force them to move to emissions-free power anyway, they do show that utilities are under increasing pressure to decarbonize their electricity supply. And this can help to push the many utilities in the United States that have either made no such plans to decarbonize, or whose plans are so weak that they can be seen as cynical stalling tactics.
There are now five investor-owned utilities that have made commitments to decarbonize their electricity by 2050 or sooner (Xcel, Idaho Power, Green Mountain Power, PNM and now Avista), which are joined by a number of municipal utilities and cooperatives which are either planning to reach 100% carbon-free electricity in their supply or have already gotten there.
However, some commitments cannot be taken at face value. While Colorado generation cooperative Platte River Power Authority passed a policy late last year stating that it would move to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, it included the caveat that this goal only applies if it can join an organized, regional electricity market – which does not yet exist.
And while Warren Buffet-owned MidAmerican Energy generates enough power with wind to more than cover the demand of its customers, it also continues to rely on coal plants as well, which has caused environmentalists to question the wording of the utility’s statement.
In the end, the devil is still in the details. Particularly when dealing with monopolies that operate under a mandate from the government and whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, not their customers or future generations.
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