Largest utilities avoid Obama's corporate pledge on climate change

3-Dec 2015 - McClatchy Washington Bureau (DC)


WASHINGTON - As world leaders meet in Paris to step up the fight against global warming, President Barack Obama's corporate pledge of support for more action on climate change is slowly gathering momentum.

One hundred fifty-four companies spanning a wide range of industries have signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge.

Each corporate participant has set goals to reduce harmful emissions and make greater use of clean energy sources. Signees also support a strong global climate agreement coming out of the Paris summit.

Seventy-three companies, including Ben & Jerry's, American Honda Motors Co., JetBlue and Verizon recently signed the pledge, the White House announced this week. They join 81 others, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Dell and Wal-Mart, that signed the pledge this summer.

Among the signees are a variety of energy companies, including Calpine Corp., British-based National Grid, Portland General Electric and Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

"And we expect more to sign on in the future," said White House spokesman Frank Benenati. The pledge offers support for a strong agreement coming out of the Paris climate talks, according to the White House, and sets companies up as examples to others.

But of the nation's 20 largest electric utilities, only Pacific Gas and Electric, California's largest utility company, has signed the pledge.

Those that haven't include the nation's four largest electric utilities _ Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C., Dominion Resources of Richmond, Va., NextEra Energy of Juno Beach, Fla., and Southern Company of Atlanta.

"When it comes to climate change, we respect that there are people on all sides of the issue," said an email statement from Jeannice Hall, a spokeswoman for Southern, which provides power for more than 4.4 million customers in the Southeast United States.

U.S. power plants create about 40 percent of the nation's harmful carbon dioxide emissions, which are the main cause of climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But Bryan McGannon, policy director at the American Sustainable Business Council, which advocates for a sustainable economy, said he's not surprised that large utility companies are foregoing the corporate pledge since new federal guidelines require power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for the first time.

In August, the Environmental Protection Agency established the new rules known as the Clean Power Plan. Using state-specific goals for lowered carbon emission rates, the plan is projected to cut power plant emissions by roughly 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

States can reach their reduced-emission goals through development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, greater investment in natural gas and nuclear power and by curbing the use of coal-fired power.

"Despite the fact that they're not signing on to the president's pledge, I've seen from reports that most (large utilities) are active at the state level developing the state implementation plans that are called for under the EPA rules," McGannon said.

Duke Energy, the nation's largest electric power holding company with 7.3 million U.S. customers, has set voluntary carbon reduction goals and reduced carbon emissions by 22 percent since 2005, said an email from company spokesman Sean Patrick Walsh.

Duke plans to invest $3 billion in renewable energy over the next five years, including up to 500 megawatts of new solar capacity in Florida and $500 million to expand solar capability in North Carolina.

"While the company doesn't have a representative attending the Paris conference, we are working with our states to evaluate alternative strategies for further reducing (carbon dioxide) emissions," Walsh added.

Hall said Southern is focused on "developing real energy solutions for a carbon-constrained future," but those solutions must make technological, environmental and economic sense.

"The focus must be on developing and deploying technologies that reduce greenhouse gases while making sure that electricity remains reliable and affordable," she wrote.

Dominion, which serves nearly 2.5 million customers in Virginia, has cut carbon emissions by 28 percent since 2008, company spokesman C. Ryan Frazier said in an email.

They expect further reductions by developing natural gas-fired facilities and greater use of solar power. The company is also exploring a third nuclear reactor at its power station in central Virginia.

"Complying with our state's plan to meet Clean Power Plan requirements will require real action, not words," Frazier wrote. "Dominion has been taking _ and will continue to take _ real action to cut carbon emissions in Virginia."

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