Opinion | When Will Electricity Companies Finally Quit Natural Gas?

As Americans suffer through immense wildfires, rising coastal flooding and an epic hurricane season, the nation’s corporations want you to believe they are coming to grips with the climate crisis.

Among the companies pledging bold emissions cuts are those that generate America’s electricity, which emit more than a quarter of the nation’s global-warming pollution. Yet, that same industry is about to make a strategic error that could render meeting its own goals far more expensive, if not impossible.

As they shut down costly and dirty coal-burning power plants, the electrical companies are planning to build 235 gas-fired power stations across the country, according to our analysis of figures compiled from commercial databases by the Sierra Club. The companies claim these are needed to replace the coal plants, and to balance fluctuations in electricity generation from rising levels of wind and solar power. This investment in new gas plants would exceed $100 billion.

If the plants are built, along with the pipelines to support them, they are likely to run for 30 or 40 years — long past the point that emissions from the electrical grid need to approach zero if we are to have a reasonable climate future.

The companies are portraying these new gas plants as a bridge to the future, since they have lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal plants. In fact, they are a bridge to a climate breakdown because their emissions are still significant. The companies ought to know that, but building chimneys is in their blood. They are behaving like smokers who really, truly plan to quit, as soon as they finish that last carton of cigarettes.

Now, it is true that gas plants play a critical role on the electrical grid at the moment because they provide nearly 40 percent the country’s electricity. But a major new report from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the United States already has enough gas plants to support a transition to a far cleaner grid. To the extent new power is needed, wind and solar plants, coupled with large batteries, are generally cheaper options.

By contrast, if the companies go forward with $100 billion worth of new plants, they may need to be shut down within 10 to 15 years to meet national, state or utility goals for emissions reductions — a foolhardy investment.

At least 26 of the proposed plants are already under construction, and it may be too late to stop them. Fortunately, many of the ones that are not as far along could well be killed by market forces.

Large parts of the United States have competitive markets for wholesale electricity production. As the cost of big wind and solar power plants continues to fall, a rush is underway to pair them with huge batteries that can supply electricity even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Many gas plants will not be able to compete. In fact, the Rocky Mountain Institute recently reported that gas generation in two large electricity markets “is now attracting only a small fraction of investor interest compared to clean energy.”

Alas, the situation is quite different in monopoly markets, where utilities face little or no competition. They recover their costs through rates set by state regulators, not by operation of a market. The Southeast is one section of the country that is especially problematic. There, big utility holding companies like Duke Energy and Southern Company jealously guard their monopoly fiefs.

Duke just released a plan suggesting it wants to build at least 10 new gas plants in the Carolinas. Southern Company — which owns utilities in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi — also wants to build large new gas plants, though it has yet to reveal the exact number. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation that is also a de facto monopoly and supplies power to seven Southern states, plans to build up to 11 gas plants.

At risk here is not investor money, but the wallets of people who live in the Southern states. Once these plants get built, customers will be forced to pay for them even if they shut down early.

It is not too late to stop these plants. Governors and regulators in the Southern states, and the board of the T.V.A., will not be doing their jobs unless they subject these proposals to rigorous scrutiny. Citizens should demand it.

Superior options are available. For starters, the Southern utilities need to commit to moving much faster on clean energy. They also need to do a far better job of trading power across state lines. A recent study by Energy Innovation, a research group in San Francisco where one of us works, and Vibrant Clean Energy, a company that does sophisticated modeling of power systems, found that a robust wholesale power market in the Southeast could save customers $384 billion between now and 2040, while avoiding most new gas plants.

Details of such markets can be complex, but the basic idea is simple. If power is available from an existing power plant in, say, South Carolina, why should customers in Georgia pay to build a new, duplicative plant, or vice versa?

Recent events in New Mexico show what can happen when power companies are asked to weigh all options.

The big utility there, Public Service Company of New Mexico, is shutting down a large coal plant as required by an excellent new law, the Energy Transition Act. The company wanted to build a gas plant to replace much of the lost power.

Clean-energy advocates proposed an alternative, involving wind and solar farms, batteries and other steps, that would cost nearly the same, with lower financial risk and much lower emissions. Regulators were persuaded, and the gas plant is dead. Every utility executive and regulator in the country needs to study this example.

We admire the nation’s power companies. They are adroit at the hard job of keeping the lights on. And they are starting to see that global warming is serious. Emissions from electricity generation have fallen more than a quarter since 2005.

But we also think the companies lack a sense of urgency about the climate crisis, a problem compounded by their poverty of imagination. Technologies are available now that would allow them to go much faster on energy transition, yet they are stuck in an antiquated mind-set: the best way to make electricity is to burn something.

That era will end. The sooner the companies come to grips with that, the sooner they can build the clean, affordable power grid the American people need.

Justin Gillis is a contributing opinion writer and a former environmental reporter for the The Times. Michael O’Boyle is a director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, which does research and analysis on clean energy.

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