You know things are not going well for your industry when one of your best customer gives a keynote speech at your annual conference to talk up your competition.
At the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance’s 40th Annual Conference in May, electric utility Dominion Energy highlighted the company’s agreement with Smithfield Foods to generate electricity from hog waste.
“That’s right,” Dominion lobbyist James Beamer told the coal crowd, “Hog poop to green energy.”
Speakers from both main utilities at the conference said they have big plans for renewable energy, and they aim to reduce their emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide 80% by 2050.
None of this was good news for coal, the most carbon-heavy fuel for power generation.
Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. But momentum to combat climate change continues anyway.
But it’s not enough. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in the United States and globally, putting the world farther and farther from the goal set in Paris to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Gloom in coal country
Beamer told the crowd at the Virginia coal conference that Dominion’s biggest upcoming investment in coal country would be a storage facility for renewable power. The company plans to build 3 gigawatts of solar by 2022 and a pioneering offshore wind project, he added.
Although the Trump administration has acted to loosen regulations on mining and burning coal for power, utilities aren’t interested. Since 2010, 289 coal-fired power plants have shut down or plan to, according to the Sierra Club. That’s more than half the national fleet. No new coal plants have been built. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts coal will continue to lose market share to natural gas and renewable energy through at least 2050.
Kentucky’s energy and environment secretary, Charles Snavely, a former coal executive, told the conference that EIA may be underestimating.
“If we’re already projecting a significant decrease over time,” he said, “I think that it will probably be worse than that.”
Private sector pressure
One big reason utilities are moving away from fossil fuels is that some of their biggest customers are demanding renewable energy. Big, energy-hungry corporations are pushing for solar and wind power in states where fighting climate change is not a priority.
In Alabama, for example, the state public service commission first opened the door to large-scale solar projects in 2015 “based solely on the Walmart decision to come in and use solar power,” according to Commissioner Jeremy Oden, speaking on a panel of state utility regulators at the Virginia coal conference.
The company aims to power half its operations with renewable energy by 2025.
Other corporations that Alabama is courting, including Toyota and Amazon, also have goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and are willing, in some cases, to pay a premium to get it.
Companies like these are telling state regulators that they want renewable energy “no matter what,” said Missouri Public Service Commission Chairman Ryan Silvey.
“No matter what,” agreed Kentucky Public Service Commissioner Talia Mathews.
Major corporations also are lobbying the federal government to do more. Levi’s, Nike, Mars Incorporated, Microsoft, PepsiCo, eBay and dozens of others are making the case that “we need federal policy. We need a price on carbon. And this is an issue that is not only about the future of our planet, our families, our kids, but our economy,” said CEO Mindy Lubber with the corporate sustainability nonprofit Ceres.
Since the November 2018 elections swept a wave of left-leaning lawmakers into office, several states have stepped up their plans to fight climate change.
This year, New Mexico, Nevada and Washington committed to producing 100 percent clean energy by 2050 or earlier. California and Hawaii already passed similar laws.
The 2018 elections put climate change on the agenda at the federal level, too, for the first time in a decade. Democrats see an opportunity to campaign against Republican climate denial and inaction in the 2020 presidential election.
World falling short
No other country has followed the United States on its path out of the Paris climate agreement.
President Trump and his supporters have said the agreement puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage because it requires Americans to cut their emissions but does not impose the same restrictions on other countries.
“The biggest emitters in the emerging economies, including China, India and Indonesia, all have very ambitious pledges under Paris,” said Andrew Light, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute and a former Obama administration climate advisor. “And it looks like they are on track to meeting them.”
Meeting those pledges still would not keep the planet from disastrous warming. And efforts so far have not stopped greenhouse gas levels from rising, in the United States or globally. Emissions reached an all-time high last year, climbing more than 2% over 2017, at a time when U.N. scientists say global emissions must fall 45% by 2030 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Some 80 countries are prepared to announce bigger steps to cut their emissions at the U.N. climate summit in September, according to U.N. climate envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba, although he did not specify which ones.
“I am asking leaders not to come with beautiful speeches but to come with concrete plans to promote the climate action we need,” said U.N. Secretary-General Luis Guterres.