SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The nation’s largest utility on Wednesday outlined a multi-year plan to more quickly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero while using natural gas to generate electricity.
Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan is to remove as much carbon from the air as it emits by 2040, five years ahead of the goal set by its home state of California and Southern California. Edison, the state’s second largest utility.
The utility’s climate strategy also calls for more ambitious short-term goals. These include reducing emissions to 50% below 2015 levels, expanding the use of biogas – created when food waste and other organic matter decomposes – so that it constitutes 15% of its natural gas production, and to ensure that 70% of its electricity supply comes from renewables such as solar and wind, all by 2030.
The utility also plans to add enough charging stations to power 3 million electric vehicles and will help customers replace gas-powered devices with electric options. The latter is intended to respond to a growing trend of communities banning or severely restricting gas appliances in new construction. Last month, Los Angeles joined more than 50 California cities that have approved such plans.
PG&E expects its natural gas production to decline 40% by 2030 from 2015 levels, but the utility will keep its three gas-fired power plants running.
With 16 million customers in northern and central California, PG&E serves more people than any other utility in the country. Its climate goals are among the most ambitious set by major investor-owned utilities, in part because California already has aggressive clean energy laws in place, such as requiring utilities to obtain 100% of electricity from non-carbon sources by 2045.
Beyond the broad deadlines, the plan lacks many details. Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network, a taxpayer advocacy group, said there was no price hike protection for consumers. In contrast, the Sacramento Municipal District recently pledged not to raise prices more than the rate of inflation as it strives to meet an ambitious deadline to eliminate carbon emissions from its power supply by 2030.
“What’s missing is a concrete commitment to affordability,” Toney said of PG&E’s plan.
The report also does not specify the level of emissions the company still expects to produce by 2040. To be net zero, the utility would need to remove the same amount of emissions from the air through technologies that aim to capture carbon and store it. . The report says the company supports policies that promote research and development of these technologies, but does not outline any specific actions the company will take in this area.
PG&E chief executive Patti Poppe said details would come later.
“What I’ve learned over my years is that setting a stretch goal is the first goal, it’s the first step,” she said in a call with reporters.
Poppe said the company wanted to make sure it could provide new, cleaner energy sources to customers at the “lowest possible cost”. The price per kilowatt-hour that PG&E customers are currently paying is about 80% higher than the national average, according to a 2021 study by Next 10 and the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business .
Last year, the utility got about 50% of its electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind. Another 39% came from the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is scheduled to close in 2025. Although Governor Gavin Newsom has expressed interest in keeping the plant open, PG&E’s plan does not include an ongoing role for it.
To compensate for this energy loss, the utility is investing in more battery storage so it can save excess solar power generated during the day for use at night, according to the plan. In recent years, California has struggled on extremely hot days to get enough power to feed the grid as more and more people crank up their air conditioners. Increasing battery storage for solar power is a key part of the state’s strategy to avoid blackouts.
Ken Alex, who was a senior policy adviser on climate and energy issues for former California Governor Jerry Brown, said it was odd that the utility chose 2015 as the benchmark for emissions. The state typically measures progress in emissions from 1990 levels, which were lower than 2015.
He also noted that the utility had not included any information about emissions related to wildfires started by its equipment and how those factored into its goals. California has only recently begun to calculate the carbon emissions of
forest fires in its overall inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, although it does not attribute these emissions to specific utilities.
“These are real shows, and they can overwhelm the system,” Alex said.