The U.S. power industry would struggle to meet presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s proposed mandate that it become carbon neutral by 2035 without some big breakthroughs in clean energy technology, according to a Reuters analysis of planning documents and a survey of top utilities.
The country’s top power producers said rapid advances in nascent technologies – such as batteries to store power for lean times, carbon capture to trap waste from fossil fuels and advanced nuclear power – will be critical to reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions.
But these technologies are currently either too costly for mass deployment or not yet commercially viable, the companies said. Historically, utilities have invested little in emerging technologies because they are required by regulators to keep costs low.
Reuters contacted the 10 largest U.S. publicly traded power producers and three others with ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals to determine their outlook on reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming. All but four responded. The news organization also mined public statements, state regulatory filings and corporate documents to determine these utilities’ views.
Those views cast doubt over the feasibility of Biden’s proposed mandate as he prepares to face off with President Donald Trump – a climate change skeptic and booster of fossil fuels – in the November election.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible,” said Adam Richins, Chief Operating Officer of the IDACORP Inc unit Idaho Power, which supplies electricity to parts of Oregon and Idaho and has a plan to supply 100% clean energy by 2045. “I would just say the plan is very ambitious.”
A spokesman for Biden’s campaign acknowledged the technology gap and said the former vice president’s climate plan includes “historic investment” in clean energy to help utilities meet the carbon-neutral goal.
“Joe Biden believes in the potential of American workers’ ingenuity and will mobilize our nation’s talent and grit to build a modern, clean electric infrastructure,” said spokesman Matt Hill.
Biden has called climate change the biggest challenge facing America and the world, and in late July announced a proposal to spend $2 trillion on clean energy – paid for through corporate taxes.
The power sector accounts for nearly a third of U.S. C02 emissions, roughly on par with transportation, and scientists say slashing output is essential to helping avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
Solar and wind power are the most readily available alternatives to fossil fuel plants, and large amounts of both are being added to U.S. grids. But utilities say they need other resources that can be dispatched when the sun goes down or wind is low.
The Trump administration has dismantled Obama-era regulations that would have required power producers to slash CO2 emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that Biden’s climate plan included “unrealistic mandates that would cripple America’s economy and crush our poorest communities.”