As public demand veers increasingly in the direction of 100% renewable energy, the utility and fossil industries are doing their best to dampen the enthusiasm, injecting what they see as a dose of reality into the drive to get runaway climate change under control.
“Renewable energy is hot. It has incredible momentum, not only in terms of deployment and costs but in terms of public opinion and cultural cachet,” notes Vox climate specialist David Roberts. “To put it simply: Everyone loves renewable energy. It’s cleaner, it’s high-tech, it’s new jobs, it’s the future.” So far, 80 U.S. cities, five counties, two states, and 144 companies around the world have adopted 100% RE targets, and six U.S. cities are already there.
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
“Even if policy-makers never force power utilities to produce renewable energy through mandates, if all the biggest customers demand it, utilities will be mandated to produce it in all but name.” Roberts notes. But the mounting trend “has created an alarming situation for power utilities”, part of an industry that tends to be “extremely small-c conservative”.
“They do not like the idea of being forced to transition entirely to renewable energy, certainly not in the next 10 to 15 years,” he writes. “For one thing, most of them don’t believe the technology exists to make 100% work reliably; they believe that even with lots of storage, variable renewables will need to be balanced out by ‘dispatchable’ power plants like natural gas. For another thing, getting to 100% quickly would mean lots of ‘stranded assets,’ i.e., shutting down profitable fossil fuel power plants.”
But research recently commissioned by the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, and obtained by Roberts points to 100% RE as a “wildly popular goal” and a “public relations juggernaut”. The PR consultants found that 74% of “media informed customers” in Minneapolis and Phoenix thought utilities should use solar “as much as possible”, 70% agreed that “in the near future, we should produce 100% of our electricity from renewable energy sources like solar and wind”, 82 to 87% supported the 100% RE movement, and majorities of survey participants said they would support 100% RE with a 10% or even a 30% increase in utility bills.
“That is wild,” Roberts writes. “As anyone who’s been in politics a while knows, Americans don’t generally like people raising their bills, much less by a third. A majority that still favours it? That is political dynamite.”
And when the consultants tested utility messages explaining why the transition might take more time, participants just heard a bunch of excuses.
“You could tell what side he was leaning toward,” said one Phoenix focus group participant. “He offered no solutions. It was just problem, problem, problem.”
“The battery in my phone lasts all day,” added another Phoenix participant. “He’s making excuses. 150 years ago, we were lighting candles. We can make the change; we can all do this.”
“I want to hear about how the work would get done,” said a Minneapolis participant. “I don’t want to hear him complain about how much work it will take.”
Which means “yes, but” is the last argument left for utilities intent on slowing down the shift. The consultants determined that “utilities must convince customers that they support renewable energy, first thing, off the bat,” Roberts states. “If they can make that key connection, then they can swing the conversation around. Once customers are convinced that utilities are sincere about supporting renewables, they become more open to the message that getting to 100% will take some time, that it needs to be done deliberately, and that costs need to be taken into account.”
A similar set of arguments is taking shape in the fossil sector, with the industry-led Oil and Gas Climate Initiative warning last week that decarbonization will face a public backlash if it moves too quickly. Representatives of 13 colossal fossils, including CEOs Ben van Beurden of Royal Dutch Shell and Bob Dudley of BP, “said a long road lies ahead that’s filled with political and technological challenges, and insisted petroleum will remain a key source of fuel for a growing population,” Bloomberg reports .
“The product portfolio will have to evolve, and I think we have a role in making that evolution,” van Beurden told the invitation-only forum. But “all these things we cannot do by forcing it down people’s throats. In the end, it is the consumer that has to decide.”
“If we do not provide the energy that is required, you will see an impact on the global economy,” said Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser.
The companies grabbed headlines by announcing a 20% reduction in methane emissions by 2025, a shadow of the 40 to 45% target that the United States, Canada, and Mexico previously adopted  for that year. They also unveiled a US$1.3-billion investment fund to support start-up businesses “aiming to cut emissions from vehicles, oil wells, concrete production, and other top sources of greenhouse gases,” Bloomberg notes.
U.S. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp called the methane promise a “good, strong goal” if companies stick with it, but warned that “laggards” in the U.S. fossil industry could hide behind the plan. Patrick McCully, climate and energy program director at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, cast OGCI as an effort by fossil companies to stave off their “inevitable” demise.
“The math is clear,” he told Bloomberg. To avoid “catastrophic climate change, we need to stop expanding fossil fuel use and start the managed decline of the sector.”