A slate of new Integrated Resource Plans and sustainability proposals indicate U.S. utilities are realizing the business case for clean energy technologies. But many utilities are still hedging their bets on a mix of resources.
It’s become politically and economically advantageous to embrace clean energy. But many utilities are skeptical of a renewables-dominant future.
So where do power companies break down in their approach?
In a Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) ranking of utilities integrating the most solar in their portfolios, the usual suspects — including PG&E, Southern California Edison, Austin Energy and Xcel Energy — mostly came out on top.
Those companies are known for their renewable energy commitments.
In its latest corporate sustainability report, Minnesota-based Xcel achieved a 40 percent carbon-free portfolio that mostly relied on wind and nuclear. By 2022, the utility said its wind capacity alone would reach 40 percent, totaling a 61 percent carbon-free mix. It also said natural gas use will shrink from 23 percent in 2017 to 12 percent in 2022, and coal will drop 10 percent over that same period, to 27 percent. Through 2027, Xcel will retire 40 percent of its owned coal capacity.
Duke Energy Progress North Carolina also ranked in the top five for annual megawatts of solar, as did South Carolina Electric & Gas. In April, Duke reported that the utility added over 1,000 megawatts of wind, solar, and biomass in 2017, amounting to more than 6.4 gigawatts total. Wind and solar accounted for the great majority.
In its recently released sustainability report, Duke outlined storage projects including 75 megawatts included in its IRP for the Carolinas. Utilities in states like California and Arizona are taking a similar path, choosing battery storage over gas peaker plants.
SEPA’s rankings for megawatts of solar per customer and installed storage also spotlighted some smaller utilities, such as Wisconsin’s Madison Electric, Tucson Electric and Power, and Moreno Valley Utility.
SEPA president Julia Hamm said the results, which are culled from an industry survey, show a clear shift in utility strategies.
“The 2018 Utility Survey results reflect a pivotal moment in the U.S. energy transition as utilities increasingly focus on solar and storage as distributed resources providing value to customers and the grid,” she said in a statement.
At the same time, though, utility IRPs still value fossil resources.
Duke Energy, for instance, has several different divisions including Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas. Its 6.4 gigawatts of clean energy cover all of them. North Carolina still receives under 5 percent of its energy from solar power.
Renewables make up 7 percent of Duke’s full generation, with gas and fuel oil accounting for the highest proportion at 39 percent. The company's plans include a budding energy storage portfolio, but the utility also notes that “natural gas continues to play an expanding role” in Duke Energy’s operations. By the end of 2030, the utility projects natural gas will make up an even larger portion of its generation fleet.
Jim Robo, CEO at NextEra Energy, has called the company “the world's current leader in wind, solar, and storage development.” Earlier this week, the company sealed a deal with Southern Company to acquire ownership interests in two Florida gas plants totaling 1,451 megawatts. NextEra has also said it expects to bring 400 to 1,300 megawatts of solar online between 2017 and 2018.
In April, Southern Company’s CEO Thomas Fanning said the company would transition to “low-to-no-carbon” sources by 2050. In 2017, the company’s generation mix included 47 percent natural gas, 28 percent coal, and just 10 percent renewables. Looking ahead to 2022, the company reports it will grow its solar and nuclear assets almost equally. Fanning called building new nuclear a “national imperative.”
North Carolina and Virginia’s Dominion Energy this month published an IRP that included plans for solar, but bypassed battery storage and called for a minimum of 3,664 megawatts of gas combustion turbines by 2033. A spokesperson cited cost as a factor.
Policy remains a major influence on utility clean energy plans. The Southern Environmental Law Center said policy pressures have pushed most of Dominion’s advances in renewables (the utility did support a bill signed in March that should boost clean energy in Virginia). SELC attorney Will Cleveland said the utility is stuck between the future and the past.
“Right now [Dominion] is standing with one foot in the past to benefit its shareholders, and one foot in the future,” he said in a statement. “It knows renewable is our best, cheapest energy option.”
But IRPs continue to change as renewables and storage get cheaper. And more utilities may choose to build cleaner resources based on economics alone, not policy or advocacy pressure.