Many major businesses have already adopted renewable energy, but even the latecomers still have a good chance to stake out a position in the clean power vanguard. On the federal level, President Trump has pulled back on national decarbonization goals, leaving a leadership gap that the private sector is eager to fill. There are also opportunities on a local level, as some utilities are offering renewable energy options that go above and beyond the requirements of their own state governments.
The recent actions by utilities are especially interesting because they indicate that the US economy will continue to decarbonize, even though the Trump Administration remains determined to prop up the coal, oil and gas industries.
Electricity companies take the renewable energy pledge
Midwest Energy News has been tracking the clean power trend among 17 energy companies in its region, and found that a significant majority of 13 have set their own targets for renewable energy, emissions reduction or both.
According to Reporter Andy Balaskovitz, these targets amount to a no-brainer from a bottom line perspective, mainly because the cost of renewable energy has been dropping. The availability of low cost natural gas also dovetails with emissions reduction goals, though the lifecycle impacts of natural gas undercut its “cleaner” reputation.
One standout example is Iowa’s mid MidAmerican Energy. Although Iowa’s renewable energy standard is almost 35 years out of date, MidAmerican has set a 100 percent renewable energy target.
The Consumers Energy example
Balaskovitz makes the point that utilities prefer to set their own standards because they can set their own deadlines and smooth out rate impacts, but direct bottom line considerations are only part of the equation. Utilities that set their own standards can also claim all the good publicity for making progress on their benchmarks.
In addition, Balaskovitz notes that utilities like Consumers recognize the value of clean power to shareholders. For now that includes natural gas, though renewable energy is beginning to edge gas out of the picture in some markets:
Investor-owned utilities and their national trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, say they are adjusting to changing customer and corporate attitudes and declining costs of renewables and natural gas.
…And appealing to shareholders means investing in utility-owned generation, including natural gas, solar and wind.
Balaskovitz provides the example of the Michigan utility Consumers Energy to illustrate this proactive clean power strategy at work.
Back in 2012 the company fought against a proposed state renewable energy standard, but just last February the company met — and beat — a similar proposal. The new state proposal calls for 30% renewable energy. Consumers Energy pledged 40% by 2040 and also promised to cut emissions by 80%.
In contrast, the current state requirement is only 15% by 2021. Utilities in the state are on track to meet that modest goal, but now Consumers Energy stands out from the pack.
In yet another bad sign for President Trump’s pro-coal messaging, in 2016 Consumers Energy closed seven coal power plants to jumpstart its clean energy goals.
Good publicity for renewable energy fans
Last week Consumers Energy provided a good example of the media opportunities offered by self imposed renewable energy standards, when it announced new clean power partnerships with GM and Switch:
General Motors and Switch are the first participants in a new Consumers Energy program to help large businesses use large renewable energy sources. Both companies are now matching 100 percent of their electric use at key operations in Michigan with wind-generated power.
Although Switch is not a household world, GM’s participation is significant. The company has been a renewable energy early adopter and sees itself as both a leader and mentor. Dane Parker, General Motors vice president of Sustainable Workplaces, emphasized that point in announcing the new partnership:
Corporations have a leadership opportunity to help accelerate and scale renewable energy, making it more accessible and affordable for everyone. The Consumers Energy program will help General Motors meet its commitment to source 100 percent renewable energy at all global operations by 2050, while reducing emissions in our Michigan communities and making the grid greener.
What about nukes?
Some energy analysts lean on nuclear energy as the most efficient means of large scale, rapid decarbonization, but that strategy appears to be situational.
In countries with strong central policy makers there is still a window for nuclear energy, but that’s not the case here in the US. Electricity demand is relatively flat, renewable energy resources have yet to be tapped out, and local opposition makes the idea of widespread re-nuclearization politically impossible.
Although the US continued its nuclear programs under President Obama as well as Trump, it is unlikely that utility customers and investors would favor a decarbonization strategy that depends on building fleets of new nuclear power plants.
For nations where demand is expected to grow rapidly, there is still a policy window for nuclear energy. That’s a realistic outcome in nations where powerful central governments set policy regardless of community concerns, although global solar capacity is actually beginning to catch up with nuclear.