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Why Utility Companies Are Key To Slowing Climate Change


When you turn on the lights in your home or switch on your TV, you may be contributing to the warming of the climate - or you may not. It all depends on how your electric company is generating that power. Utilities are seen as key to slowing climate change. And to explain why, we are now joined by NPR's Dan Charles.

Hey, Dan.


CHANG: So I don't ever think about my electric company unless there's, like, some blackout. And then I'm like, what is going on? But why are electric utilities so important in fighting climate change?

CHARLES: Because electricity is the big hope. Electricity is the one big energy source that can be free of carbon emissions. You can make it from the sun. You can make it from the wind. Tap the heat of the Earth, hydro power.

CHANG: So many options.

CHARLES: Some people include nuclear. Other people say nuclear is too dangerous for other reasons. But that is the reason why utilities are sitting right in the middle of these discussions over how to get to zero carbon emissions, which is what scientists say is necessary if we're going to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change in the future. But electricity is not clean yet.

CHANG: Well, how much of it is already?

CHARLES: Across the country, about 60% is still coming from fossil fuels, coal, natural gas. That is changing, but slowly, and a lot of people say it's not fast enough. I took a reporting trip recently to North Carolina, sat down with one of the biggest electric utilities in the country, Duke Energy. Duke Energy is planning to shut down some coal plants, but it is mostly then planning to build natural gas plants instead. That does cut greenhouse emissions, but definitely does not get you to zero.

CHANG: Right. But we keep hearing about how, like, solar and wind energy are, like, the cheapest sources of energy. So why aren't utilities going all-renewable?

CHARLES: That was the question I asked Duke Energy, and the utility kept insisting that a big, fast shift right now to renewables would make electricity more expensive. Remember, up till now, most utilities have not had to include in their accounting any cost to the environment, just cost to the consumer. If they got hit by something like a carbon tax, suddenly, coal and natural gas would be way more expensive, and solar would look a lot cheaper. We don't have that now.

But there's another reason why utilities are not super excited about going all in. This is kind of a paradigm shift for utilities. It complicates their job because, remember, they can't control the wind and the sun the way they do coal and gas plants.

CHANG: Sure.

CHARLES: They can't just turn a switch and produce more of it when people need more.

CHANG: It's a big problem when the sun goes down, and then everybody starts turning on the lights. Then what do the utility companies do?

CHARLES: Right. So they could do some things. Like, when the sun is shining, charge up some humongous batteries so the power's there later when people need it. But also, instead of just managing the supply of electricity, maybe they could manage the demand for it. So for instance, they could control people's electric appliances. Say, a water heater - they could turn it on when there's plenty of electricity, when the sun is shining. Sun goes down - they turn it off again, matching the demand to the supply.

CHANG: Ah, like time shifting the demand for electricity.

CHARLES: Yeah, which is a technical challenge, but it also raises this other really big question. If I'm a traditional electric utility, how do I make money doing that?

CHANG: I mean, are they even allowed to make money doing something like that?

CHARLES: Well, that is a question. Remember, these are heavily regulated companies because they're often monopolies. And the regulations usually say an electric utility is required to provide reliable power at the lowest possible cost, period. That's it.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHARLES: But now they're saying, well, maybe we should come up with new rules that say, for instance, electric utilities can charge consumers not just for generating the power, but also for things like energy storage or time shifting demand for power, phasing out fossil fuel plants early. Basically, make it profitable to cut carbon emissions. They're starting to do that in places like New York or Minnesota, Colorado.

CHANG: So how expensive would this be? Do we have any idea?

CHARLES: Well, starting down this road is actually not expensive at all. Utilities are doing it already just because wind and solar is cheap. But things do get expensive, probably, when you get closer to zero carbon emissions, when you're relying on wind and solar not just for 50% or 60% of your electricity but 100% of it because you have to prepare for these rare events when you need a lot of renewable energy for a very long time. Think a really cold, long, cloudy winter when, you know, there's not much...

CHANG: No sun.

CHARLES: ...Not much sun and people are turning their electric heaters way up. To prepare for those real events, you would need to build a lot. That's when it could end up costing you real money. We don't know exactly how much that is yet.

CHANG: That is NPR's Dan Charles.

Thanks, Dan.

CHARLES: Nice to be here, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.