By Hannah E. Jones
In the Southeast, transportation and electricity are the highest carbon-emitting sectors. During a time of extreme weather and a worsening climate crisis, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) recently released the fifth edition of its annual report that tracks carbon emissions and remediation efforts in the region.
The primary goal of the report is to evaluate the decarbonization process in the power sector. Decarbonization is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, which can include retiring coal and gas plants, using renewable energy sources and electrification.
The 2023 report was written by Energy Policy Manager Heather Pohnan and Research Director Maggie Shober, who led a seminar explaining the report’s findings. They compiled historical and forecast data related to more than 3,500 generators at over 1,400 plants in the Southeast through 2035. Additionally, Pohnan and Schober tracked where the power is being consumed rather than just where it’s generated.
“One part of SACE’s work is demystifying, to the best of our ability, that resource planning process and other policies that influence decisions about energy choices,” Pohnan said.
There are two major pieces of legislation that will aid the effort — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act — but through the report, the SACE team seeks to determine if more action is needed. And the news isn’t good. The team concluded that current utility resource plans do not align with the overarching carbon reduction goals — like the Biden Administration’s objective to reach zero emissions by 2035 — meaning more work is left to be done.
Current utility plans show a decrease in coal, an increase in solar and a continued reliance on fossil gas. Additionally, the benefits from the decline in coal will be less impactful as fossil gas consumption rises. For example, SACE found that Duke Energy is proposing new gas power plants in North and South Carolina as it continues to swap coal for gas. To that end, the company is not on track to decarbonize even by 2050.
According to SACE, to be in line with the zero emissions goal by 2035, the projected regional emissions for 2030 would need to be cut in half. Ideally, emissions would be close to 120 million tons by 2030 but current forecasts show double that amount.
“The Southeast really lacks competition. [If these] electric utilities face competition, the prices of renewable energies would continue to drop,” Shober said. “The cheapest megawatt hour is the one you don’t use. Energy efficiency is hugely cost effective, and we’re open to exploring how competition in the electric sector can help us fix this current utility plans’ trajectory.”
Ultimately, the SACE team is asking leaders to prioritize clean energy over heavier emitters like fossil gas. The team also encourages folks to join the Clean Energy Generation, a movement to create a healthier, more sustainable environment.
“These are real, clear and present dangers — we cannot just be talking about decarbonization in the abstract. We have to make it a priority,” SACE Executive Director Stephen Smith said. “I think, fundamentally, all of us as consumers and voters, we have to hold our decision-makers accountable. They are the ones literally at the steering wheel [and] driving us over the cliff by not making the right decisions. This report is absolutely critical in raising the alarm that in the Southeast, we’re not on track.”
Smith continued: “Have we made progress? Absolutely. But we have to continue to accelerate the decarbonization [process].”
To read SACE’s new report in full, click here.