The much debated climate bill is being heralded as legislation with the substance enough to begin to change our lives towards a new path of sustainability. One group that would arguably see the most change is the network of the country’s energy providers as carbon pricing leads to higher stakes for producing electricity from coal, oil and natural gas. Some have set up this confrontation as taking place between greenies and big power companies, but the power generation world is not as uniformly resistant as some might say. Is it possible that some of our biggest polluters could actually help lead our walk into the sustainable promised land?
A series of recent events points to the possibility of utility companies leaving behind the stance of defiance to play a more cohesive role in formulating new climate legislation. One of first steps is acknowledging the issue which, compared to where we have been, is a big step. A trio of large utility companies recently lead a withdrawal from the United States Chamber of Commerce citing disagreements over the Chamber’s stance on climate change. Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric and PNM Resources all pulled their participation from the organization that claims to be “the voice of business.” Shortly afterwards, Nike resigned its position on the federation’s board. Tech bellwether Apple has been the most recent departure.
New York Times sentinel, Kate Galbraith, recently reported on two more utility companies steering their business away from coal-fired power. Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, released a new strategy outline for future production to meet an anticipated 50% rise demand with no new coal plants. Similarly, NV Energy, a utility servicing Nevada and California, decided to postpone production of a 1.5 gigawatt coal plant to change its potential opening from 2012 to 2020. As Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 often notes, the only true solution to make the difference that we need to, as fast as we need to, when it comes to carbon emissions is attacking coal for power production.
So why the change of heart? Could it be that the widespread chanting of environmental advocates are finally seeping in on the highest level, enough to make corporate executives question their means for making profits in our country? Before we start doling out halos and merit badges, there could be a number of reasons why this turn of events is not quite so surprising.
We are moving into a political state of mind where it is a question of when, not if, climate legislation is going to be passed. With the Copenhagen summit on climate change only months away, fewer want the U.S. to appear as the climate dunce of the developed world. Furthermore, Manik Roy, Vice President of Federal Government Outreach for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, recently pointed out that 23 states and the EPA are all in the process of reforming their own means of combating emissions. “There is a misconception that no legislation means no regulation. This is just not the case.” Utilities could be facing new laws and regulation on local levels regardless of whether or not the Kerry-Boxer bill passes in the Senate. At this point it is simply smart business for companies with the largest stake in the outcome of climate regulation to play a more central and participatory role in how the laws get detailed.
Most of these mentioned utility players hail from the west coast where states already have healthy goals for requiring renewable power generation by 2020. California prides itself on being at the forefront of sustainability. Supporting a more broadly based action and downplaying coal production can create the appearance of being a green crusader while getting more mileage out of things that they may run into on the local level anyway (which does not make it wrong, I say take all the credit that they want.) It is unlikely coincidence that Exelon is the country’s largest producer of nuclear energy. As pointed out by Robert Peltier from energy blog Master Resource, nuclear energy stands to fair extremely well if climate legislation doles out carbon allowances by percentage of current generation—meaning that nuclear companies could get carbon permits for free that can be sold at market price (since they produce no carbon themselves.) With few people asking questions about what we will do with the country’s nuclear waste issue, it is increasingly easier for nuclear companies to claim green roots.
There may be more than a bunch of born again greenies to explain the growing support for change, but so what? For the challenges that we face now of reformatting a number of social norms, supporters do not have time to quibble over whether or not different people are doing the right thing for the right reasons. If the prospect of imminent climate legislation is causing utilities to re-evaluate beforehand, then process is working just as it should and its integration may be even easier. With goals that are even slightly closer to aligning, more progress can be made on getting initiatives to market and implementation. From consumer education, to smart grid test programs, to quicker resolution to NIMBY sentiments for siting new power generation and transmission; all could stand to benefit from having more utilities on board.
Photo Credit: Flickr davipt