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Utility CEOs look to nuclear, burying lines as ways to address climate risk, ESG

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Essential Energy Insights - October 2021


Utility CEOs look to nuclear, burying lines as ways to address climate risk, ESG

Along with renewable investments, the chief executives of some of the nation's largest investor-owned utilities are looking to underground transmission lines, nuclear and carbon capture as strategies to mitigate climate risk and address environmental, social and governance concerns by investors.

"I have long been a triple, bottom-line leader," PG&E Corp. CEO Patricia Poppe said during a panel discussion hosted Oct. 12 by S&P Global Ratings. "When I say that, I mean people, our planet and California's prosperity in the context of PG&E."

Poppe, who took the reins of the San Francisco-headquartered utility in early January, said she visited Paradise, Calif., during her first day on the job. In June 2020, PG&E Corp. utility subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after its equipment ignited the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County, Calif.

Pacific Gas and Electric, known as PG&E, in July unveiled plans to bury about 10,000 miles of distribution lines to help prevent its power lines from triggering catastrophic and deadly wildfires, which also led to a $58 billion joint restructuring plan.

Poppe noted that PG&E has already committed to underground lines in Paradise and other parts of Butte County.

"I was able to see on that first day the efficiencies that we've gained in doing undergrounding more at scale than in the more traditional sense," Poppe said. "In this case, we were able to dramatically reduce the cost."

"[A]nd then, when I learned that we spend $1.4 billion a year in expense managing vegetation ... and yet there is still 8 million trees within strike distance of our lines, I realized that we were on the wrong path," the CEO said, adding that "undergrounding becomes the obvious solution."

Poppe said the capital program will allow PG&E to "spread the cost for customers, eliminate that vegetation management expense, or at least reduce it dramatically in the places where we do undergrounding, and have a more sustainable and safer energy delivery system."

"I think it of it as sort of the perfect triple, bottom-line solution," Poppe said. "We're able to make an investment that makes the system safer and save our customers from high bills they can't afford and we get to save their trees. So we're protecting our planet for the long haul."

Emissions reductions

Utilities also are funneling billions of dollars into cleaner energy resources, such as solar, wind and nuclear, while exploring new technologies.

"If we think about our strategy, it really is to continue the decarbonization that we've been on already," Portland General Electric Co. President and CEO Maria Pope said, adding that about 50% of the utility's energy mix comes from hydroelectric generation, wind and solar resources. "We're also working on electrifying our overall economy. It's very clear that the state of Oregon wants the utility and Portland General to be focused on helping other industries as well as the transportation sector with their decarbonization goals."

Oregon's new 100% Clean Energy for All law requires the state's investor-owned electric utilities to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Southern Co. and its investors are zeroed in on the completion of the over-budget and delayed Alvin W. Vogtle Nuclear Plant expansion.

"I look forward to the time where we don't have the big event risk at Southern," Chairman, President and CEO Thomas Fanning said. "I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Completion of the Vogtle project is also expected to boost the company's decarbonization plans, which also entail looking at carbon capture, hydrogen, end-use technologies and direct air capture, Fanning said.

Meanwhile, Dominion Energy Inc. sees nuclear relicensing and its proposed 2,640-MW Virginia Beach Offshore Wind Project as keys to its plan to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide and methane emissions by 2050.

"[Offshore wind] is the best investment for our customers ... because it decarbonizes at the scale that is going to be essential to build generation at scale," Dominion Chairman, President and CEO Robert Blue said.

Blue defended the company's natural gas portfolio and specifically the strategic importance of its gas distribution business.

"If we were going to write off the gas grid, you think about the reliability and resiliency impacts that would have for our country," Blue said.