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U.S. utilities may be 100 percent renewable energy by 2060

In a significant shift towards sustainable energy, U.S. utilities have committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2060. This move, as highlighted in a study published in the journal Climatic Change, is primarily driven by the utilities themselves, rather than state mandates.

Rapid transition 

Study co-author Matthew Burgess, assistant professor at CU Boulder, commented on the pace of this transition. 

“Many people feel the transition on the policy side isn’t going fast enough,” Burgess said. “But the private sector is moving faster than we thought. A lot has to do with technology, costs going down, natural gas replacing coal, and renewables replacing fossil fuels – policy is not the only lever.”

Focus of the study 

The study, led by Grace Kroeger for her honors thesis in Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, was motivated by her experiences in energy and sustainability during an internship. 

“I wanted to look critically at what the people on the ground are doing. For example, the companies that are responsible for the energy that we all use and consume,”  Kroeger said.

How the research was conducted 

Kroeger and Burgess analyzed 30 years of data, comparing state renewable energy targets with the utilities’ own goals. 

They examined the impact of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Clean Energy Standards (CES) across various states and how utilities’ own commitments align with these mandates.

Critical insights 

Interestingly, the researchers found that the industry is generally surpassing policy-driven efforts. Utilities appear to be on track to meet or exceed state goals, with projections indicating a fully decarbonized electric grid by 2060, assuming utilities adhere to their commitments. Inclusion of nuclear power in renewable portfolios could hasten this timeline to 2050.

A notable discovery was that utility companies plan to decarbonize even in states lacking renewable policies or goals. “For example, Southern Company has goals to decarbonize. But the states the company operates in – Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama – don’t have portfolio standards,” Kroeger said.

The study also revealed differences in approaches between blue and red states, with blue states generally adopting stricter renewable energy policies. However, most states, including red ones, are likely to decarbonize based on utilities’ own objectives.

Study implications 

While the findings are based on stated future plans of utilities, historical data shows a trend of utilities transitioning to renewables faster than anticipated. This progress, however, still falls short of the Biden Administration’s goal to eliminate fossil fuels from the U.S. energy sector by 2035, a target announced without accompanying policies or mandates.

“There’s a lot of really interesting stuff happening in the private sector. The private sector creates interesting decarbonization connections across states, and it has interesting connections to the policy space,” Burgess concluded.

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