On November 5, scientists emphatically called for an immediate rewriting of the global status quo in the face of the faster than expected acceleration of the climate crisis, which is on course to cause “untold damage”. This came almost exactly two years after a “warning to humanity” was signed and published in the same journal*. Good to see the positive progress we’ve made …
In a statement published in the journal BioScience, the scientists stated that among a host of other “troubling” signs, like the number of air passengers and global tree cover loss, was our still high use of fossil fuels. They pointed out that while solar and wind energy consumption has increased 373% per decade, it was “still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption”. Dirty subsidies, meanwhile, were pitched at over US$400 billion last year, while CO2 levels are, perversely, rising.
Key to positive change include – among others like reducing meat consumption – lower energy and fossil fuel usage. In this latter respect, a move away from greenwashing is crucial. Yet a survey has found that a host of U.S. electric utilities are guilty of significant greenwashing – promoting images of solar in particular, while “secretly” blocking renewable energy policies.
This adds to a growing list of news articles and investigations into utilities’ operations, which according to their PRs are heavily investing in renewables and supporting the clean energy transition, yet in reality are blocking favorable legislation and/or are pumping even bigger amounts into building new, or maintaining old, dirtier, energy forms.
Behind the scenes
The latest blow to the shiny public facades many utilities are fostering is a survey carried out by Greer Ryan, Renewable Energy & Research Specialist at the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity, which concludes that many electric utilities in the United States are “actively fighting” the clean energy transition.
Overall, she says that the top investor-owned electric utilities reviewed are actively using greenwashing, including reportedly funneling millions of dollars into portraying a pro-renewable public image, to divert attention away from more unsavory activities. As has been reported by the likes of watchdog organization Energy and Policy Institute, this is achieved via their memberships to associations like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which has been found to engage in activities like helping “member utilities achieve desired policy and regulatory outcomes.”
Speaking to pv magazine, Ryan says, “The gist is that utilities pay a lump sum of money … in the form of dues, claim it’s necessary for their operations, and it’s impossible to ensure that those dues don’t in turn go to political activities that would otherwise be excluded.”
She continues, “This greenwashing is dangerous. It misleads investors and ratepayers, leading them to believe that utilities are further along in investing in clean energy solutions than they actually are. It also distracts from their participation in anti-renewable energy political actions, such as Pinnacle West’s spending $38+ million to fight a clean energy ballot measure in Arizona in 2018. Pinnacle West also recently admitted to spending almost $11 million to influence utility commission elections in 2014.”
Greenwashing vs. verifiable sustainability
It is essential that the clean energy transition is implemented, and fast. It must also be executed in the right way – taking both environmental and social justice into consideration. On November 14, we held a webinar with Professor Dustin Mulvaney and SMA, to learn about greenwashing vs. real sustainability, and what you can do to become a true green leader. Download the recording
The utilities Ryan surveyed include Duke Energy, DTE Energy and NextEra Energy. The latter’s subsidiary company Florida Power and Light was also included, since it comprises the majority of NextEra’s generation and on its own is one of the biggest utilities in the country.
Responding to the claims, Randy Wheeless, spokesperson for Duke Energy told pv magazine, “The survey seems like an excuse to accuse companies of ‘greenwashing’ without taking a hard look at the data. Duke Energy has invested north of $7 billion in wind and solar projects the past decade. Very few utilities can match our track record. The study fails to consider purchased renewable energy. Duke Energy utilities buy much more solar power than we produce ourselves. It makes up an additional 4 percent of our overall energy mix … As for photos on the web site: Most of our new generation projects have been wind and solar. It makes sense that our web site reflects the latest projects at Duke Energy. We have more than 60 solar sites and 20 wind farms throughout the nation. Most built this decade.”
This sounds like a reasonable comeback, yet if you look at the data behind the soundbites, as former senior editor at pv magazine USA, Christian Roselund did in September, you can see that while “Duke proposes to add a total of 4.8 GW of solar and solar plus storage over the next 15 years in the territories of Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas … this is a small concession compared to the company’s plans for the future, or its existing fossil fleet.”
Wheeless declined to comment on how Duke views the fact that EEI is involved in pro fossil lobbying behavior, using money from its members, and that there does appear to be a discrepancy between the image promoted to the public about renewables and the knowledge that their funds are actively being used to work against the industry.
Florida Power and Light, which on the face of things, has the most ambitious plan to voluntarily build large-scale solar of any utility, has also funded a deceptive campaign to get Florida voters to restrict rooftop solar, which one of the consultants they hired openly described as “political jiu-jitsu”. Roselund has also covered these details on the U.S. website; the utility has not responded to a request for comment.
Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) bashed DTE Energy’s resource plan, finding that the utility had hard-coded its preferred resources, instead of letting the model select the optimal mix of resources, as editor Will Driscoll reported in June.
The surveyed utilities are not all equally guilty. PG&E, for example, has put more utility-scale solar online than is required under California’s RPS.
As Roselund points out, however: “Under the U.S. model of regulation, utilities earn a return by building infrastructure. Rooftop solar threatens transmission infrastructure by making it less necessary, while large-scale solar does not really do so in the same way. Also, under net metering rooftop solar lowers the revenue of utilities because customers can offset their electricity consumption with their own generation. So, there are two potent economic reasons why utilities would oppose behind-the-meter, distributed solar (including rooftop), particularly under net metering. And these are really the result of a system of incentives and regulation that worked for the 20th century, but that doesn’t work for the 21st century.”
In the following Q&A, Greer Ryan speaks to pv magazine about the survey’s findings:
pv magazine: How did you identify the utilities?
Greer Ryan: In order to identify the top investor-owned electric utilities in the United States, we did a search for top electric utilities and found multiple lists with electric utilities ranked by metrics such as market share, retail sales, customers and megawatts. Rankings from three lists were placed side-by-side and cross referenced. All utilities that appeared on at least two of the three lists were noted, yielding a final list of 19 U.S. energy utilities to be used in the study (plus one subsidiary).
What survey methodology did you employ?
In 2018, we examined every page of the websites and investor reports for 19 top investor-owned utilities. We reviewed and catalogued 2,364 images from 188 website pages and all annual investor and sustainability reports for the 19 utilities. We also searched key energy-related words to track how many times they were used on each page.
What did your findings, specifically, reveal?
Specifically, for images on webpages: Across all utilities, clean energy (wind, water and solar) images outnumbered fossil fuel images 2-to-1. Solar images alone outnumbered fossil fuel images. Why is this significant? Solar energy makes up less than 2 percent of these electric utilities’ portfolios.
- Duke Energy and NextEra Energy have the highest proportion of clean energy to fossil fuel energy images, with ratios of 15-to-4 (almost 5-to-1) and 6-to-1 respectively.
- Florida Power and Light, the largest subsidiary of NextEra and a utility known for fighting solar policy, has a ratio of 6-to-0.
- Florida Power and Light generates less than 1 percent of their electricity from renewables. NextEra’s total generation data is unclear.
- In 2017, Duke Energy utilities and infrastructure generated only 1 percent of their electricity (net output MWh) from hydro and solar, with the remainder from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear.
- Note: Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary, produces and sells wind and solar projects to other utilities and private companies as well, making up approximately 6% of their total energy produced (this does not count toward their total electricity generation portfolio).
For images in investor reports: Across all annual reports, clean energy images outnumbered fossil fuel images nearly 4-to-1, while across all sustainability reports, clean energy images outnumbered fossil fuel images nearly 6-to-1.
For keywords: In annual reports, mentions of fossil fuel sources actually did outweigh clean energy sources. ConEd and Dominion are the only companies whose clean energy words outweighed dirty energy words in their annual reports.
On websites: PG&E really skewed results with 236 mentions of solar/wind/hydropower out of a total of 362 across all utilities, while NextEra also disproportionately spoke to solar/wind/hydropower, with a ratio of 15-to-4.
How are the utilities managing to hide these activities so well?
Much of what utilities do to influence public opinion and political outcomes is indirect, through industry and trade association groups. Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents all investor-owned utilities in the United States, as well as Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG), Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) and Utility Water Act Group (UWAG), have a long history of participating in regulatory proceedings, litigation, and PR campaigns to advance certain industry objectives. This kind of political activity, if it came directly from the utilities themselves, would be regulated by public utility commissions. Utilities have learned to get around this by paying high industry association dues to these shadowy groups, ultimately funding these actions.
What do they gain from misleading the public?
Under the current utility business model, in order to meet clean energy goals, utilities fear losing money if renewable energy ramps up too quickly and fossil fuel sources ramp down too quickly. This is particularly true for concerns around self-generation (e.g., rooftop solar). As customer-owned solar energy systems have become more widespread, electric utilities have sought to systematically undermine favorable solar policies. They have urged state public utility commissions and state legislatures to reduce or eliminate favorable distributed solar policies, add “fixed charges” and other measures that discourage these investments, and have otherwise sought to block new state-level legal and administrative changes necessary to further distributed solar deployment.
Why are your findings so significant?
We are not transitioning off fossil fuels quickly enough to address the climate crisis, and utilities are slowing progress while gas-lighting customers.
The U.S.’s electricity mix is (as of 2018):
- 63.5% fossil fuels
- 19.3% nuclear
- 15.2% wind, water, solar
- Large-scale solar makes up 1.6%. Small-scale solar is not included in this total, but accounts for the equivalent of about 1%.
- 1.5% biomass
- 0.4% geothermal
According to a recent report by Energy and Policy Institute, many of the largest investor-owned utilities are planning to slow down their decarbonization efforts over the next decade compared to the previous one.
To keep climate change to 1.5 degrees C, the United States’ electricity system must transition to one largely reliant on renewables by 2030. The hard truth is that we have a long way to go in the next 10 years, especially as electricity needs increase to meet electric vehicle demand. Clean electricity generation currently makes up less than 16 percent of our current electricity mix, and utilities are locking in plans for fossil fuel power that far exceed the level safe to meet our 1.5 degree target.
Utilities and fossil fuel companies have known about climate change and its projected harms to people and the environment since the 1960s yet have consistently funded climate denial, resisted clean air and water regulations, and actively fought efforts to build up renewable energy markets through shady industry association groups, often funded by their ratepayers.
But utilities also realize that the public overwhelmingly supports clean energy and have worked to curate a public image to take advantage of this support. From advertisements to websites and investor reports, utilities paint a different picture that utilities are leading the way in supporting clean energy, effectively “greenwashing” their image.
* The opening sentence has been amended on 19.11.2019 at 13.24 CEST to reflect the ongoing query over the actual number of scientists that signed the statement.
Greer Ryan is the Renewable Energy and Research Specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, working to advance a 100% clean and equitable energy future from Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.S. in Molecular Environmental Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.S. in Environmental Science from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and is currently pursuing a J.D. at Lewis & Clark Law School.
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It is all part of a part of the plan cooked up at the EEI Chairmans meeting in 2012. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1374670-2012-eei-board-and-chief-executives-meeting.html#document/p48/a191712
Thank you Greer Ryan for pointing out how the American consumer is denied true wealth management; in light of technical advancements that could further strengthen social institutions other than those that benefit a small minority.
Solar on every roof should be a mantra to make America the greatest example of participatory democracy in the world.
When the majority benefits through this example of capitalism and choice in purchasing alternatives, the world may take note in eliminating one reason for foreign involvements as it concerns energy exploitation.
As an engineer and part-time farmer who has evaluated a wide variety of energy production and use scenarios it seems that the real problem may be a lack of knowledge about how energy is produced. Some is greenwashing, often it is a different way of seeing the same issue. The electric power utilities primary concern is reliability in times of drought, floods, clouds and climate changes. We have found that the U.S. Energy Information Administration is an excellent source of data and practical explanation about how American companies and residents produce and use power. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us.php
Our family has been on average 70 % carbon neutral for over 10 years, and owned both grid tied solar system, and a net metered solar system. Policies are helpful, but changing human and corporate behavior is also important. We have found that the answer is “often in the middle” and that taking personal responsibility for one’s energy use and the waste generated from it are the best way to evaluate what is renewable and sustainable.
You make good points. I agree, for now the middle ground is the best way forward as the large utilities too need to find a balance between old generation and transmission models that have stood the test of time, while incorporating the new green technologies in their energy generation mix.
Developing awareness of personal energy use and also of the waste and pollution generated by the ‘traditional’ energy sources will help turn this ship around.
Shutting off traditional power sources will create opportunities while disrupting the status quo.
It is an economic upheaval that needs to be managed well
“We have found that the answer is “often in the middle” and that taking personal responsibility for one’s energy use and the waste generated from it are the best way to evaluate what is renewable and sustainable.”
Resonating, “personal responsibility”, each person is a drop of rain, each rain drop going the same direction creates a stream. Each stream flows into a river and the rivers feed the oceans. WE consume electricity from a centralized fueled generation resource and should be consuming our own self generated solar PV, wind or micro-hydro generation, taking care of (off) generation times with personal energy storage.
As you have studied energy use as a whole, then you also know that with fueled generation, used in a “mechanical” generation system, the BTUs going into the system, right at half of that “fuel” is lost to mechanical heat exchange and some friction of the turbine used to generate the power. Then it’s step up and step down transformer losses that can erase another 15% to 25% of the generated power from generation source to ratepayer end user. That’s 70% to 80% efficiency loss from end to end. Even with fueled generation that uses “co-generation” where excess heat is used to heat buildings, it is still site specific and by and large, most of the electricity users will not benefit from the recaptured heat and the grid inefficiencies take over.
The major power utility in this area a few years ago created a solar initiative that saw people and firms in-line waiting to apply. The plan was supposed to run for 3 years. In actually the utility shut it down after 9 months. The reason given was the demand was so great that it was impacting their planning for new NG plants and transmission lines.
One of the first projects I saw coming out of this initiative was a sausage processor switching on a large solar field immediately adjacent to their plant. There was some criticism from the utility of the size of the field as the utility found they needed to improve the surrounding infrastructure. The final result, however, is the processor doubled the size of the plant adding jobs ending up being a net win for the community. As for the utility, they still grumble about the solar impact, I read the Execs bonuses etc, rather than the actual impact on the region and community.
Excellent article showcasing the greenwashing being done by Electric utilities. The priorities of entrenched interests need to be exposed. An infrastructure built over a hundred years will take time to dismantle, but it wll happen sooner rather than later. Scientific advances and demand from an informed citizenry will make it inevitable.
What do we need China and India to do to stay under 1.5 degrees C?
The US is the second leading producer of CO2 in the world. So we should play the blame game and do little to nothing in the meantime, right?
Any person who has followed renewable development since the 1980’s would not discount the role of Florida Power and Light. Most of the early windpower development in Texas was done by FPL. After they became successful NextEra was spun off. NextEra was instrumental in developing solar in California during the early years of the Obama administration. The author states “NextEra’s total generation data is unclear”. I believe their portfolio of renewables is immense, both wind and solar. They are now building a massive portfolio of solar in Florida.
FPL was a key founder of utility scale renewables in this country. Your article appears to state that since FPL no longer owns most of the capacity that they are greenwashing the public. I disagree.
“The U.S.’s electricity mix is (as of 2018):
63.5% fossil fuels
15.2% wind, water, solar
Large-scale solar makes up 1.6%. Small-scale solar is not included in this total, but accounts for the equivalent of about 1%.
This is sad, up until around 2012, it was the residential and small business solar PV market that was installing more solar per year. Now the electric utility has caught on that even intermittent solar PV or wind generation is much cheaper to construct, operate and maintain than any fueled generation plant. The electric utilities also want to “own” the generation resource no matter what drives the generation product. The rote utilities don’t want to deal with a bi-directional grid which means partnering with those who pay it forward and adopt their own alternative generation system and may compete with the utility with energy storage behind the meter. A lot of housing developments are beginning to adopt the solar PV with energy storage in every home built. This gives the “community” an impressive aggregate energy storage capacity and presents an opportunity for the utilities to use their online assets in a more efficient manner than they are now. Spinning reserve operation is as stupid as “curtailing” non-fueled generation resources to “regulate” the grid.
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