The nation’s investor-owned electric utilities will try to lead their regulators and the public into believing that their natural gas investments are part of a “low carbon future,” according to documents obtained by UtilitySecrets.org.
Utilities will try to greenwash natural gas rush
An internal memo from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, summarized “confidential” “key messages” which the utilities developed at their Executive Committee Retreat on September 6, 2016 in Colorado Springs, CO. The top takeaway was:
The memo’s quotation marks around “committed to” might as well be ironic, as the industry is aggressively pursuing a massive gas plant and pipeline building rush. Sierra Club estimates that utilities have proposed 111 GW of new gas plants, in addition to the 31 GW under construction now. That gas rush, if it proceeds, would preclude the U.S. from meeting its Paris climate goals.
Perhaps recognizing the vulnerability that its natural gas plans are incompatible with the “low-carbon future” to which it is committing, EEI foreshadows new messaging it will pursue to position natural gas as a complement to renewable energy, rather than an obstacle to it:
Clever phrases like “sunshine peakers” do not change the fact that continued unfettered natural gas growth is an obstacle to decarbonization. Gas-fired power plants are designed to last for 20 to 40 years, and once utilities have spent the capital to build them, they will aim to run them as long as possible to recoup costs, even as renewable energy increasingly undercuts gas on cost, and energy storage begins to do the same. The more gas that utilities build, the less space for renewable energy on the grid, and the more greenhouse gasses will be polluted into the climate.
Attacks on rooftop solar to continue, despite a “pro-solar” message
Another of the memo’s key messages presaged further attacks on rooftop solar energy by utilities:
The call for “rate reform” so that “all customers who use the grid continue to pay for the grid” is a reference to the industry’s pursuit of fixed charges and residential demand charges in recent years.
Fixed charges increase the proportion of a customer’s bill that they pay no matter how much electricity they use. They tend to raise bills for low energy users and lower them for high energy users, which means they are felt the hardest by the poorest customers. The charges make rooftop solar less valuable, a key reason why utilities are pursuing them around the country, and they also discourage energy efficiency since they rob customers of the opportunity to reduce that fixed portion of their bill by consuming less electricity. Residential demand charges are unpredictable fees on customers’ electric bill every month, based on the 15-minute or one-hour period during the month when they use the most electricity. They can end up tying much of the total monthly bill to this one brief period. Just like fixed charges, they hit seniors and other customers on fixed budgets the hardest, and discourage rooftop solar and energy efficiency. Demand charges make rates less transparent, not more so, belying EEI’s complaint that “today’s rates are not transparent.”
Also in the memo, the EEI emphasizes to its members that they offer a “Simple and straightforward message: we support all types of solar energy.”
Just like the proclaimed commitment to a “low carbon future” that support is false, as evidenced by the call for rate reform in ways that would harm solar just a few paragraphs earlier. The double-speak represents utilities’ acknowledgment that rooftop solar is widely popular, and that they can win policy battles only by hiding their attacks under a false façade.
Major utilities tried exactly that in Florida, claiming a ballot initiative there last year was pro-solar, when in fact, it was an attack on the industry. A recording of one of the ballot’s main backers revealed the attempt at deception, resulting in cratering support for the utilities and a loss at the polls.