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Electricity companies throw a wrench in Biden's plans to eliminate greenhouse gases


The Biden administration wants to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. economy by 2050 to limit climate change. But companies that supply electricity to American homes and businesses aren't likely to stop using fossil fuels anytime soon. Michael Copley with NPR's climate desk has been following this closely. Michael, all right, you've been looking at what the power industry is doing around climate. Why'd you focus there? And what'd you find?

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: Yeah. So I zeroed in on the power sector because it's going to be one of the easiest places to reduce emissions, relatively speaking. Renewables like wind and solar have gotten really inexpensive. And there's a lot of investment happening in big batteries that store energy. But what we're seeing is that companies are still building fossil fuel plants that are going to be around for decades. So companies are building enough natural gas plants to power close to 13 million homes. That's according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That means the natural gas plant that starts producing electricity next year could run into the 2060s. That's way beyond when the U.S. government and a lot of these same companies have said they'll zero out emissions.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like companies are saying one thing, then doing something else.

COPLEY: You know, it's a complicated picture. One of the explanations that I heard is that big utility companies just don't think they have much of a choice right now. They're under pressure to retire coal plants. They're having to deal with a lot of intermittent wind and solar. And they need some way to make sure that they have energy whenever they need it. And right now, they just don't see a cleaner option to do that than natural gas. That's one explanation.

Another is that these utilities just don't face much scrutiny from their state regulators. And so they're not under pressure to change the types of investments that they're making. And they know that they can make a lot of money building natural gas plants. Andy DeVries is an analyst at CreditSights who covers the power market. He said the reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

ANDY DEVRIES: Yes, of course, these utilities want to overspend on everything. But they do have a good point. The lights do have to stay on. And when that solar goes down and when that wind's not running, you need these gas plants.

COPLEY: Now, DeVries says that as long as we're trying to retire coal, gas is probably going to still be part of the picture.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So if some of these companies feel like they have to keep investing in fossil fuels, I mean, how realistic then are climate targets for them?

COPLEY: You know, the companies that I talked to said they can do both things at once. Now, what they're counting on is technology to either capture the emissions before they're released into the atmosphere or some other fuel, like hydrogen, that they can use to replace natural gas in these power plants that they're building. But that assumes those technologies are going to work and be cost effective. And that could be years away.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So then what does that mean for our efforts to reign in climate change?

COPLEY: It's going to be harder. The Earth's going to keep getting hotter as we keep pumping out more emissions. And that worries scientists like Lisa Dilling at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She says the risk is that we hit climate tipping points. These are points of no return that could lead to permanent changes in the Earth's ecosystems, like melting glaciers or the widespread death of coral reefs.

LISA DILLING: If you start to get to these tipping points, our climate starts to change in ways that are possibly irreversible, possibly self-perpetuating and start to threaten the basic ways that we've organized our society.

COPLEY: Dilling says that could mean everything from how we grow food to where we live.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So scientists say we have to move faster to cut emissions. What's the chance that that will ever happen?

COPLEY: Look, there's a ton of excitement around the Inflation Reduction Act that Democrats passed earlier this year, provides billions of dollars of incentives that are expected to make renewable energy a lot more competitive with fossil fuels. At the same time, analysts say that high natural gas prices from the war in Ukraine are starting to change how some investors think about the types of investments they make in energy markets. That said, changes historically happened pretty slowly in energy markets. And companies are still putting money into power plants that are going to generate new emissions.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Michael Copley with NPR's climate desk.

Michael, thanks.

COPLEY: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.