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Report Alleges Utility Sector Knew About CO2 Risks in 1968. Times Have Changed

In 1968, America’s youth movement was a lot more concerned about the fighting in Vietnam than it was in the environment, or for that matter climate change. But should it have been?

The California-based Energy and Policy Institute says that it has obtained documents that the industry’s lobbying organization, the Edison Electric Institute, had information in 1968 that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change. According to Reuters, the phenomenon could then trigger “catastrophic effects.”

This writer has covered the utility sector for nearly 20 years and it was at some point in the early-to-mid 2000s that the group had formally said that it believed man-made CO2 was tied to global warming. At that time, the statements were “revolutionary” and were clearly a turning point in the thinking of the very conservative power sector.

To thus think that the warnings given in 1968 would be taken as a shot across the industry’s bow is to misunderstand the era in which the news was first given. In the 1970s, however, the industry’s research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute, did take up the issue. And according to the Reuters report, it did conclude that rising CO2 levels would lead to higher temperatures and rising sea levels.

“There is a growing consensus in the community that the greenhouse gas effect is real,” EPRI said formally in 1988, according to Reuters. But the electric power industry chose not to “warn the public.”

Exxon Mobil is now in the same boat. The New York Attorney General’s office has alleged that it had apparently known of the ill-effects resulting from climate change but that it had kept that information hidden from public view.

Exxon, though, calls the allegations “politically motivated.”

Now the fingers are pointing at electric power companies. The Reuters report says that allegations are that the utility sector lobbied against tougher regulations, including those tied to coal fired power plants. Today, the utilities and the coal companies that either did or still do provide them with steady fuel supplies are often on different sides.

“The electric power industry has reduced carbon emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels as of the end of 2016,” said Jeff Ostermayer, a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, which is the lobbying arm, in the Reuters report.

Times have changed. Coal-heavy utilities embrace the concepts behind climate and are moving to renewable energy, on site generation and microgrids.

While not a surefire bet, other utilities are having success in clean energy markets. Consider: By 2019, the U.S. solar market is expected to resume year-over-year growth across all market segments that include photovoltaic (PV) rooftop and utility scale solar that ties into the centralized grid. And by 2022, 24 states will be home to more than 1,000 megawatts of operating solar PV, up from nine today, says GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association in their U.S. Solar Market Insight 2016 Year-in-Review report.

Southern Co. is seeking to tap into those opportunities by selling and servicing solar panels in its home territory. “We need to let the market decide what is best for customers,” says Tom Fanning, chief executive of Southern, which has long been dependent on coal-fired electricity.

Duke Energy, meanwhile, is shedding coal plants and investing in wind and solar energy. It either contracts for or owns roughly 5,400 megawatts of wind and solar energy and it expects to increase that to 8,000 by 2020. Duke is receiving tax benefits for building such plants while the utilities that buy from it are typically required to do so under their state renewable portfolio mandates.

Grid investments are also central to Duke’s mission. Modernizing those assets and installing automated meters that can notify consumers when demand is spiking is essential to maintaining both rates and reliability. The goal is to increase efficiencies and to make room on the grid for greener electrons. New power plants are less urgent, the company says, because the demand for electricity has been declining, not to mention the move to more on site generation.

And American Electric Power, which is a major coal-burning utility, has plans to develop 8,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy over two decades. It will also spend $15 billion on its infrastructure to help facilitate that goal. 

“Absent imagination, the utility industry will change dramatically,” says Brian Keane, president of the non-profit clean energy marketing firm Smart Power, in an interview.

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