Utilities, Not Consumers are Resisting the Shift to Renewable Energy

Utilities are struggling to protect their profits while satisfying customers' growing demands for renewable energy.

Recent polls have shown that an increasing number of Americans believe it is time to move beyond fossil fuels. In one survey, 74 percent called on utilities to use solar power “as much as possible.”

Respondents in another poll agreed that “in the near future, we should produce 100 percent of our electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind.” Fifty-one percent said they would accept a 30 percent hike in their bills to accomplish the goal.

Advocates of alternative energy point out that solar, wind and other technologies are cleaner and that they create jobs. The overriding fact, however, is that carbon emissions are the primary cause of climate change.

Vox reported that, according to a Sierra Club analysis, officials in more than 80 cities, five counties and two states have pledged to eventually switch entirely to renewables. Six of the jurisdictions have already succeeded in reaching the 100 percent mark.

Utilities are beginning to realize that it may not be government regulations that force them to use renewable sources. Instead, the demand is coming from consumers and the private sector. According to the climate group RE100, 144 companies around the world plan to stop relying on fossil fuels by sometime between 2020 and 2050. Among them are Google, Ikea, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike and General Motors.

Some corporate officers in the energy-production business are open to making the transition. Others appear to be committed to depending upon oil, natural gas, and other extractive industries as long as they can. One of the arguments is that more research and innovation are needed before completely abandoning fossil fuels. There is also concern that the shift would result in “stranded assets” like power plants.

The Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization of utility companies, recently teamed with the market research firm Maslansky & Partners to assess public opinion regarding the issue. They “analyzed existing utility messaging, interviewed utility execs and environmentalists, ran a national opinion survey, and did a couple of three-hour sit-downs with 'media-informed customers' in Minneapolis and Phoenix,” according to Vox.

“The results are striking,” the news site reported. “Renewables are a public opinion juggernaut. Being against them is no longer an option. The industry’s best and only hope is to slow down the stampede a bit, and that’s what they plan to try.”

The researchers asked utility customers to respond to a number of statements, one of which was: “Today, we can choose between a balanced energy mix, which provides reliable energy whenever we need it, and 100 percent renewable energy. But we cannot have both. We also need to consider the costs. ... The logistics, resources and costs would be immense.”

Customers overwhelmingly rejected the argument, though some agreed that the transition will take time. “Given the cost and the complexities of it, it should be done gradually,” a Phoenix resident said. Another respondent predicted that the switch will happen “not the next five years, but maybe by the end of our lifetimes.”

A higher percentage of those surveyed agreed that using fossil fuels along with renewables “helps (utilities) maintain consistent service for customers, and avoids over-reliance on a single fuel type or technology.”

The companies told poll respondents that combining energy sources “means we’re able to bring our customers increasingly more renewable energy without asking them to compromise on reliability or cost. … We can get to cleaner energy faster and more effectively if we use a range of sources and technologies.” The utilities stressed that instead of “short-term mandates,” the solution is a transition that is “balanced, gradual, affordable (and) reliable.”

Opinions outside the industry range from renewable-energy proponents espousing the 100 percent standard, to more moderate voices calling for mixing the use of fossil fuels with solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, geothermal and biomass. Those sources are allowable under recent legislation signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown requiring the state to move to 100 percent “zero carbon.”

A third point of view, held by many conservatives and some utility company executives, is that fossil fuel plants should remain operative for the foreseeable future. This faction is the one cautioning that the change to renewables should happen “gradually,” which shows that even they understand the transition is inevitable.

Renewable energy is the “vanguard” of the future, which “appears unstoppable,” Vox proclaimed. The site noted that “the more relevant question is when lawmakers will catch on to renewable energy’s full political potential.”

Last year, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Edward Markey of Massachusetts sponsored the 100 By 50 Act, which would have required 100 percent renewable energy nationwide by 2050. The legislation mandated a ban on carbon emissions from motor vehicles, as well as an end to federal approval of oil and gas pipeline projects.

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