Getting off our fossil fuel addiction is crucial for the next decade. Corporate greenwashing is a significant impediment to action, opting instead for mere words.
Many utilities pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, including Duke Energy Corporation. The utility company, one of the largest in the U.S., announced last year that it would eliminate coal from its energy generation portfolio. The company also plans to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent in 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Duke claims it is “taking bold action to address this challenge while continuing to deliver affordable, reliable, increasingly clean energy.” The utility also claims that it is “developing innovative renewable energy projects to serve our customers as well as other utilities, businesses, and communities throughout the United States.” Are Duke’s actions, targets, and goals enough to make a difference?
Every year, the Sierra Club releases its Dirty Truth Report, which rates utility companies on their climate change plans and calls out their greenwashing tendencies. Duke’s subsidiaries include five investor-owned utilities. Taken together, the utilities received a “D” for their clean energy transition plans. Last year, Duke received an “F.”
The Inflation Reduction Act funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars toward clean energy programs. Duke has not fully incorporated the IRA into its recent plans. Yet Duke claims that it is “leveraging Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) benefits and incorporating them into integrated resource plans and rate adjustments across jurisdiction.” However, Duke does not include opportunities the IRA provides, such as bonus credits for renewable energy built with American products.
Duke Relies on Fossil Fuels
Duke has the most coal capacity of any parent company analyzed for the Dirty Truth Report, with more than 17,000 megawatts of coal online. Duke plans to retire only 30 percent of coal generation by 2030. The coal-fired plants Duke plans to retire by 2030 cause an estimated 176 deaths every year of operation. Coal is not Duke’s only fossil fuel for power generation. The utility plans to build over 5,500 MW of new gas plants through 2030. After 2030, the utility plans to build another 800 MW. Duke has the second most planned gas usage through 2030 of any parent company analyzed by the Sierra Club.
Only seven percent of Duke’s energy comes from renewables. The utility plans to increase to 23 percent by 2030. That increase ranks Duke as the fourth largest planned renewable buildout of the parent companies in the Sierra Club report. However, Duke’s sizable generation from fossil fuels means that the scheduled increase in renewables will only replace 21 percent of its fossil fuel generation. Duke needs five times that amount to replace its fossil fuel generation.
Utility Sector and Climate Change
Burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation accounts for the most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Power generation is the second largest share in the U.S. In 2021, 60 percent of the nation’s electricity came from burning fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas. The U.S. utility sector accounted for 31 percent of the country’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
Avoiding the worst climate change impacts means stopping temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to climate scientists. Emissions must peak before 2025 and then be reduced by 43 percent around 2030, according to Nan Zhou, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Utility companies play a critical role in emissions reduction. As long as companies like Duke practice greenwashing, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue increasing and not reducing.