Environment

Utilities in Kentucky have made little progress in meeting their own climate goals, according to a new Sierra Club report analyzing major announcements from the 50 dirtiest U.S. utilities.

The scientific consensus is that we must essentially halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees. To ignore this limit is to “miss a rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chair Hoesung Lee said in September.  

The report entitled “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges” analyzed a cross section of climate commitments and company plans for about 40% of the total U.S. electricity generation. It found most utilities across the country had made little to no progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

About 71% of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal power as of last year — the fourth most coal-fired generation of any state in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

The Sierra Club report gave low grades to several Kentucky utilities including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Big Rivers Electric Corporation, the Eastern Kentucky Power Cooperative and the state’s largest utility — Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities. 

Each utility’s score was based on its plans to retire coal-fired power plants, build new clean energy and not build new natural gas power plants. 

Report co-author Noah Ver Beek found LG&E and KU plans to retire only a fraction of its coal generation by 2030, while replacing it with even less renewable energy. The utility ranked third, just behind Tennessee Valley Authority, for keeping the most coal-fired electricity online past 2030. 

“A lot of these companies have big net-zero or carbon emissions reductions goals that they don’t really seem to be coming through on,” Ver Beek said. 

Officials from LG&E, KU and their parent company PPL Electric Utilities Corporation say they are committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 with interim reduction goals of 70% of 2010 levels by 2035 and 80% by 2040. The company also says it’s committed to not burning coal past 2050 unless it can capture the carbon with removal technologies. 

“We have also adopted near-term, 2030 goals to reduce our building energy use and electrify our fleet vehicles,” LG&E vice president of communications Chris Whelan said in an emailed statement. “These, and other operational goals, are tied to long-term compensation for our executives.”

But LG&E’s own officials testified they plan to continue burning natural gas through 2050, and that carbon capture technologies are “aspirational” and “not defined at this point.” 

Whelan said LG&E does plan to retire around 21% of its coal-fired generation capacity by 2028, and around 81% by 2039. 

She said the utility is currently evaluating a number of renewable energy projects and intends to file an updated generation plan by the year’s end. 

The Sierra Club report said the rapid decarbonization of the electricity sector is necessary to achieving national climate goals, and that pathways exist to cost-effectively generate carbon-free electricity by 2035. 

The report said it’s not enough for utilities to set goals without taking meaningful action. To avoid this, utilities should ensure climate pledges apply to all subsidiary companies, include interim goals and provide regular updates.

“We define greenwashing as any effort by utility companies to portray themselves as environmentally friendly or green in order to improve their public image when in reality their claims aren’t actually supported by their efforts,” Ver Beek said.  

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.