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 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.