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US utility leaders disclose disparity between climate goals, action

Nearly 90% of U.S. utility leaders said reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a high or moderate priority, while just 38% said their companies have a strategy in place and are executing it, according to a recent survey.

The survey of 190 unnamed utility executives from ICF, a utility consultant group, describes a "striking" and "yawning" gap between awareness of climate goals and action among respondents and the companies they represent. Nearly all survey respondents said their companies intended to have strategies to address issues of decarbonization, resilience, electrification and energy equity and affordability. But only about 30% of respondents said their companies have a strategy in place for those issues.

About 32% of survey respondents said their organization is planning a strategy now, and 29% said they expect to come up with a strategy within the next five years.

While about 97% of survey respondents expect their companies to have a resilience strategy for climate change within five years, only about 31% said they have begun executing a plan.

"This indicates leaders know they need to do 'something' but either don't know what to do or can't implement a strategy due to lack of capital or regulatory support," according to the ICF survey report. Utility leadership is aware the industry faces "generational challenges," according to the report, but "few have marshalled the information, analysis, support and resources to tackle them."

Climate change resiliency is the most common investment organizations expect to make, followed by energy equity and affordability, fleet electrification and decarbonization, according to the survey report. About three in five survey respondents said they felt climate change is extremely or very risky to their organization's financial and operating performance.

A little more than half of survey respondents said that lack of capital was a potential barrier that could keep their organizations from reaching clean energy goals, and about half also cited cost recovery risk. Other barriers included lack of visibility into current emissions, access to technologies, insufficient regulatory or legislative frameworks, competing internal priorities, internal skepticism or resistance to change and access to forecasting or projections.

Lack of capital and concerns over cost recovery "could reflect a lack of confidence in how to move forward," according to the survey report.

Half of the utility executives surveyed represented investor-owned utilities, according to the survey report, though the specific utilities were not named. Of those surveyed, 54% were electric-only and 46% were electric/gas or gas only. About 41% represented companies in the Midwest and West, 36% in the South and 23% in the Northeast.

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