The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

SACE released its annual utility decarbonization tracking report, and it’s not pretty

Written by

methane leaksBloomberg reports that methane leaks from the natural gas sector may be far worse than estimated by the EPA. While replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas ones reduces air pollution it may not help at all with climate change because methane is 30 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Image source: Kayrros SAS

Report: Many utilities are not reducing carbon emissions despite public assurances to the contrary

KNOXVILLE Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and experience rapid and deep reductions to avoid a potentially catastrophic future, according to a new analysis by air-quality and climate advocates. Emissions must reach net zero by the early 2050s to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (C) in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Many utilities and municipalities have acknowledged this dynamic, but the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast" report highlights that current utility resource plans are not in line with this overarching target. Obstacles to getting utilities on track that are discussed in our report include: increasing reliance on fossil gas, underutilizing energy efficiency, and placing limitations on popular technologies such as rooftop solar. There’s still a lot of work to do before any Southeast utility is on track to decarbonize.

Why focus on decarbonizing the power sector specifically?

While emissions reduction opportunities exist in many different sectors, our report focuses on the decarbonization of the electric power sector of the Southeastern United States. Decarbonization is the transition of our power supply to sources that emit lower CO2 emissions, usually with the goal of using zero-carbon resources to power all sectors. Utilities can decarbonize by replacing fossil fuels with energy efficiency and energy from renewable sources. Other sectors can use a decarbonization strategy called electrification, which means switching from direct fossil fuel use to charging with electricity instead. For example, transportation emissions can be lowered by replacing vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel fuel to electric vehicles (EVs).

Decarbonizing the electric power sector holds great significance for utilities in the Southeast, as more consumers, businesses, and local governments are beginning to electrify. Power sector emissions have sharply fallen from their peak in 2007, to the point where the transportation sector is now the largest source of CO2 in the Southeast – a trend across most states and regions in the U.S. The fact that transportation has eclipsed the power sector does not diminish the importance of decarbonizing the power supply – it actually underscores it. When EVs are plugged in to charge, drivers are using utility-generated power for their transportation needs. Therefore, the cleaner the electricity, the cleaner the EV. In fact, decarbonization of the power sector is a critical tool to reduce emissions in all sectors through electrification.

How do we track decarbonization and why are we doing it?

The Southeast is home to some of the largest utility systems in the nation, many of which have been in the national spotlight for their professed commitment to decarbonization. Duke Energy, Southern Company, Dominion Energy, NextEra Energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) have all established decarbonization goals. Of these, the two largest CO2 emitters, Duke and Southern, have both made pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while NextEra recently set a target to get to zero without any carbon offsets by 2045. TVA has announced a series of coal retirements as part of its plan to reduce emissions 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 on the path to 80% by 2035 while saying it has an ‘aspiration’ to get to net-zero by 2050.

However, there are often inconsistencies between stated goals and resource plans. So how do we track the progress of these attempts? We look at the emissions associated with what utilities are planning to do, not just what goal they have set. Let’s start with the generation mix, or the mix of resources utilities use to meet generation needs. The mix of resources that utilities use for power is more critical than ever, especially when plans show that utilities are planning to continue heavy fossil fuel use in the future.

Current utility plans show that goals to decarbonize will be hindered by rising fossil gas consumption. Fossil gas plants are already fueling nearly half of the region’s total electric generation today, yet utilities plan to still increase reliance on gas generation in the coming years. Even utilities with zero-carbon goals such as Duke, Southern Company, and TVA are continuing to pursue fossil gas. This is troubling because utilities that are looking to decarbonize should not be making more long-term investments in fossil fuels that emit carbon. This is also troubling because the goal of decarbonization should be to switch to zero-carbon resources. When consumed, different fuels emit different amounts of carbon for each megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced. This is known as carbon intensity, and it’s generally expressed in lbs of CO2/MWh. The carbon intensity of fossil gas plants is approximately half of coal plants, so during the past decade, utilities have generally switched from coal to gas. But even a utility or resource with a ‘lower’ carbon intensity can still contribute significantly when they are providing a large amount of electricity to a lot of customers, so it is important to look at who is contributing to total emissions.

Since complete decarbonization is needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it is important to also look at total emissions reductions. While the per megawatt-hour emissions intensity can be useful for quickly comparing fuel types or utilities against one another, it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about how close a utility is to reaching zero. We see that a noticeable drop in 2020 due to the pandemic is still only a drop in the bucket when compared to the path to zero. Looking at how quickly absolute emissions reductions occur over longer timeframes gives us a window into just how long it will take to reach zero emissions based on the resource plans utilities have submitted to regulators.

Most utilities were reducing carbon at a higher rate in the last decade than they plan to do in the coming decade. This is because most emission reductions from 2010-2020 were the result of flat or declining utility load paired with retiring coal generation and replacing it with fossil gas. Fossil gas is now the dominant fuel in the region, with many utilities still planning to add new gas infrastructure in the future. As a result, planned future reductions are occurring much slower than in the past decade and at a rate that would miss even the latest decarbonization “deadline” by several decades. For utilities to decarbonize at the pace seen in the 2010s they will have to retire remaining coal plants at a steady pace and replace fossil gas with clean, zero-carbon energy sources like wind, solar, storage, and energy efficiency.

What Utilities Say vs. What They Do

There’s a growing consensus from customers, investors, and regulators: everyone wants utilities to provide a carbon-free power supply. Utilities have begun catering to this want by publicizing emissions reductions and in some cases announcing decarbonization goals with various stylings (net-zero, low to no carbon, carbon-free). However, scientists have been clear that decarbonizing isn’t really a want, it’s a need. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that utilities’ actions are not meeting this need.

While many electric utilities are eager to make it known they’ve reduced emissions in the past, fewer have announced a goal that takes scientific guidance into consideration. Notably, TVA tends to tout its emission reductions over the last 10-15 years without laying concrete plans to continue to reduce emissions at that same rate. Only one utility, Duke’s two subsidiaries in the Carolinas, has taken the step to include its net-zero decarbonization goal in its Integrated Resource Planning (IRP), or long-term energy resource, planning process (though even that can fall short in some areas) and based on current resource plans, none are on track to decarbonize by 2035, 2040, or even 2050. When announcing its goal to achieve zero emissions by 2045, NextEra laid out a set of interim targets and high-level generation mixes for its regulated utility Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). This is a step in the right direction, and we look forward to working with FPL and Florida regulators on the details for achieving this goal in an equitable manner, such as through the inclusion of energy efficiency.

What’s at stake? What next?

As we’ve said in the pastevery year matters, and every choice matters when it comes to acting on climate change. Delaying further decarbonization until the next year, or the next IRP cycle or the next decade is too risky for residents of a region expected to feel the impacts of climate change first and worst. The Southeast is home to many frontline communities that are already being negatively affected by fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Stronger and more frequent extreme weather events, coastal flooding, poor air quality, and unpredictable energy prices are likely to continue to harm our communities.

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Related items

  • SACE sees many silver linings in Senate climate bill; House passage expected
    in News

    UN Climate ChangeA rainbow pierces gray skies during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. United Nations

    Climate activists stress positives of Senate climate bill despite its shortcomings 

    Amy Rawe is communications director for Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    KNOXVILLE The U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), an estimated $430 billion bill, of which approximately $370 billion will be allocated to investments in clean energy and to address climate change.

    It’s the single largest climate investment in U.S. history, and if it passes the House, will put the country on a path to be able to achieve roughly 40 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, reestablishing our influence in meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

    If passed, the Inflation Reduction Act will:

    • Give opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in well-paying jobs manufacturing, installing, and maintaining clean energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation
    • Lower Americans’ cost of electricity by spurring the development of hundreds of gigawatts of low-cost clean energy, including wind, solar, and battery energy storage.
    • Protect drivers from expensive and volatile fuel costs through financial incentives to switch to electric vehicles.
    • Reduce households’ bills through historic investments in rebates and tax credits for home energy efficiency and efficient electric appliances.
    • Promote environmental justice and direct resources and benefits to disadvantaged communities, which are often overlooked for investment and bear heavy costs of fossil fuel pollution.
  • U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clean-air ruling renews spotlight on fossil-energy producers like TVA
    in News

    TVA 4 Cumberland FP

    Supreme Court air-pollution ruling calls into stark context all that must be done

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has renewed the spotlight on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility and Tennessee’s primary source of electricity.

    The case involved EPA efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act in a challenge brought by 15 Republican-led states. That provision, which never went into effect, would have required existing power plants to shift from dirty sources of energy — such as coal — to cleaner sources, including solar and wind, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.

  • ORNL researcher models fire’s growing footprint in a changing climate
    in News

    COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno3Wild turkeys forage in charred hardwood forest soon after the 2016 Gatlinburg fires, which moved from the Smokies to developed areas in Sevier County. An ORNL model predicts wildfire threats will increase in the Southern Appalachians because of climate change. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

    ORNL report: Local wildfire danger will likely loom larger because of climate change

    OAK RIDGE This cruel summer, the Southern Appalachian region is already baking in above-normal temperatures and basking in poor air quality. 

    Air temperatures in Knoxville flirted with 100 degrees on July 6, which were well above average and prompted the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory for much of the metropolitan area.

    It’s hard to definitively link a heat wave to global warming, but one oft-cited consequence of climate change is the growing intensity of wildfires, even in the traditionally moisture-rich Appalachians. The range of climate change effects is difficult to pin down, but one constant in the study of climate change is an expected increase in overall temperatures, which can power wildfires via both fuel increases and volatility.

  • New SACE report documents shortfalls and headwinds against utility decarbonization
    in Air

    Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast: Generation and Carbon Emissions” report will be released Wednesday, June 22

    Amy Rawe is communications director for Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    KNOXVILLE The report examines power-sector generation and emissions throughout the Southeast, which is home to some of the biggest utility systems in the nation, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, NextEra Energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    Many of these Southeastern utilities have been in the national spotlight for their professed commitment to decarbonization, but there are often inconsistencies between stated goals and resource plans.

  • Court finds TVA contractor potentially liable for Kingston coal-ash cleanup injuries and deaths

    coalash tvaspill dotgriffithOn Dec. 23, 2008, a massive dam at the Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tenn., ruptured and spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers. Appalachian Voices teamed up with Southwings to take pictures from the air and launched two separate missions by water to test the river and fish for pollutants as a result of the spill.  Appalachian Voices

    Contractor that cleaned up infamous TVA ash spill not immune from responsibility for alleged unsafe worksite

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CINCINNATI A federal appellate court last week struck down a last-ditch appeal by a Tennessee Valley Authority contractor accused in the mass poisoning by radioactive coal ash waste of the utility’s Kingston disaster workforce.

    The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Jacobs Engineering Inc. cannot ride the coattails of TVA governmental immunity because TVA itself would not have been immune from liability had sickened workers chosen to sue the utility.

  • Fire, fog, floods: Scientists probe climate-change impacts in Smokies
    in News

    iiif service gmd gmd390 g3902 g3902g np000243 full pct 12.5 0 defaultMany climate-change related issues have appeared since publication of this vintage map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Library of Congress

    Invasive insects are among the vanguard of noticeable climate changes in America’s most-visited national park

    GATLINBURG Ants scurry beneath the carpet of last year’s leaves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The native ants are busy spreading the seeds of violets and bloodroot, preparing a new carpet of spring wildflowers to draw thousands of visitors.

    But the local insects aren’t alone under there. They have become prey to venomous Asian needle ants that also prowl the leaf litter.

    These invaders dine on termites, other ants and insects, while stealing habitat from them. Unlike invasive fire ants, needle ants can live in pristine forests and build large colonies with hundreds of queens. But like fire ants, needle ants have a painful sting that can trigger an allergic reaction. 

    Climate change is expected to make it easier for invasive species like needle ants to upset the delicate balance of this temperate rainforest full of rare plants and animals. That’s just one example.

  • Southeast electric vehicle sales increased 49 percent last year. Overall U.S. auto sales increased only 3 percent.
    in News

    261383081 10158333581961961 3485857265137687965 nIllustration courtesy of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

    Annual SACE, Atlas Public Policy data indicates rapidly escalating and enduring demand for electric vehicles in Southern U.S.

    Stan Cross leads Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's electric transportation policy and utility reform efforts across the Southeast.

    When will the electrification of America’s cars, trucks, and buses really take off?

    Imminently, if not already. Look to the Southeast, which is experiencing impressive EV market growth despite a lack of state-level EV-supportive policies, incentives and regulations.

    The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and partner, Atlas Public Policy, updated key year-end indicator data from the annual “Transportation Electrification in the Southeast” report to capture regional and state-specific growth in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

    This is a critical time for the expanding EV market. The pandemic has exposed global supply chain weaknesses related to auto manufacturing and battery production that can only be solved by increasing domestic production of critical materials and components.

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine is once again exposing the entanglement of America’s commitment to global democracy and dependency on oil for transportation, and highlighting the national security benefits of rapidly transitioning to electric mobility powered by domestic electricity. 

  • Seal it up: Inefficiency increases energy costs across the board

    Editors note: SACE executive director Stephen Smith is on the board of Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press operates under the FGS nonprofit umbrella.

    The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) released its fourth annual “Energy Efficiency in the Southeast” report, which tracks recent policy developments and performance trends in electric utility efficiency from 2020.

    It continues to highlight that despite being a proven low-cost clean energy resource with enormous potential to reduce carbon emissions and customers’ energy burden, Southeastern utilities continue to underinvest in energy efficiency.

    As a result, households in many Southeastern states have some of the highest electricity usage and monthly energy bills in the nation. Some states and utilities are making progress, and it’s not too late for local policymakers to take advantage of untapped efficiency savings to help reach crucial decarbonization goals.

  • Is TVA providing the best prices for energy consumers? Congress wants to know.
    kingstonThe Tennessee Valley Authority's fossil plant at Kingston. TVA

    Southern Alliance for Clean Energy: TVA is not coming clean in Congressional inquiries

    KNOXVILLE On Jan. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) requesting information regarding business practices that appear inconsistent with TVA’s statutory requirement to provide low-cost power to residents of the Tennessee Valley.
    TVA’s response to the committee’s 16 questions dodges some of the committee members’ key concerns and provides misleading information on several issues, including:
  • TVA reopens public meetings to .... the public
    in News

    3D2A2F6C B919 4295 B244 36D48A4BF9BD 1 105 cA public demonstration in September 2021 in Market Square in Knoxville demanding TVA resume public meetings with reasonable pandemic safeguards. Courtesy Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

    After pandemic starts and stutters, TVA finally allows personal public input at meetings


    For the first time in nearly two years, the publicly owned Tennessee Valley Authority will host a public listening session on the day prior to its next board of directors meeting.

    Since shifting to virtual board meetings in 2020, TVA diverged from other utilities across the country by not holding a single virtual public listening session. In addition, written comments submitted by ratepayers prior to board meetings have not been shared with the media or the public.