The Dirty Truth about Utility Companies’ Clean Energy Efforts

By Ben Jealous

Imagine telling your boss that you’ll complete less than half of the work that’s needed, getting almost nothing done over 12 months, then asking for a raise.

That’s essentially the story of the 77 utility companies still most heavily invested in fossil fuel-fired electric plants, according to a report last week by the Sierra Club and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The utilities plan to replace only 30 percent of that coal and gas with clean energy by 2030, and more than half of them have made no progress since last year. 

For example, We Energies announced in 2020 that it would retire the mainly coal-fired Oak Creek power plant in Milwaukee. Two years later, it extended the timeline by 18 months. In August, on a call with investors, corporate officials wouldn’t commit to that schedule.

Nonetheless, the company is asking the state public service for a 3 percent rate increase, which would follow an 11 percent rate increase last year.

“We Energies is asking for an additional increase saying they need it to move toward green energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” said Keviea Guiden of Citizen Action Wisconsin. “They should be doing that more quickly, but they shouldn’t be doing that on the backs of their poorest customers.”

The homes that those customers live in typically are 100 or more years old; they aren’t well insulated or weatherized, Guiden noted. “We’re pulling more gas for heating and more electricity for cooling.” 

At the same time, those same residents face exposure to gas and particulate pollution from Oak Creek every month that the transition is delayed, she said.

Wisconsin’s minimum wage still stands at $7.25 an hour. “If you’re a family making $18-20,000 a year, 10 percent of that income would go to those electric and gas bills,” said Guiden, who organized 24 residents to oppose the rate increase at a state hearing last week. 

We Energies isn’t struggling. It reported increased revenue of more than $1 billion last year. Wisconsin allows the public utility to earn a profit of almost 10 percent. 

The fact is there’s never been a more opportune moment for We Energies and other utility companies to make the switch to clean energy. The cost of solar power, which We Energies said would replace more than half of the coal-fired plant’s generated electricity, has fallen nearly 100 percent in the last decade. In its plans, the company acknowledged it would save $50 million in lower fuel and maintenance costs alone at Oak Creek.

Yet the company only has plans to build enough clean energy capacity to replace 8 percent of the energy it makes with dirty fuels and plans to add 66 megawatts of natural gas-fired power – which like coal is more expensive than solar power – by 2030.

More significantly, the historic clean energy and jobs package President Biden and Congress approved last year offers corporate tax credits that can lower the cost of solar, wind, and battery storage projects by more than 30 percent (50 percent if they are built with domestic materials and in the most impacted communities). The oil, gas, and coal industries have benefitted for decades from subsidies for everything from exploration to depletion of their reserves in the ground, giving them among the lowest effective corporate tax rates and ballooning their profit margins.

In addition, utilities can apply for $30 billion in grants and loans to increase their clean energy capacity.

So utilities can spend less than ever to generate electricity without dirty fuels that will lead to lower energy costs for Americans.

It’s past time for utilities to stop making excuses and to take seriously our national target of 100 percent clean energy by 2035. It’s time for the rest of us to be like Guiden and her neighbors and stop accepting those excuses. 

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.”

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