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Utility net-zero carbon goals 'disingenuous,' says NextEra CEO


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Utility net-zero carbon goals 'disingenuous,' says NextEra CEO

NextEra Energy Inc., the largest U.S. utility by market cap and one of the world's top solar and wind power producers, has been called out for never declaring a net-zero emissions target like many other major power utilities have done.

But the way NextEra's Chairman and CEO Jim Robo views such goals explains why the Florida energy giant has resisted jumping on the net-zero bandwagon: He thinks the targets are "disingenuous."

"Right, go plant some trees and we get to net-zero, or we'll get to net-zero as long as the technology works for carbon capture," Robo said during S&P Global Sustainable 1's' Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability virtual conference on May 26. "But the reality is that carbon capture technology doesn't work and you're not going to come up with a magic small reactor that will be cheap enough."

"So I think it's very disingenuous for a lot of folks in our sector to come out with net-zero commitments when they don't really have a view to get to what I call 'real zero,'" Robo asserted.

NextEra has said it expects to reduce its carbon emission intensity by 67% by 2025 from 2005 levels, which would be about a 40% cut in absolute emissions.

The natural gas challenge

The Florida-based energy company boasts a generation fleet that is now 50% fossil-free, and the company is setting its sights on reaching all the way to 100% fossil-free by about 2035. That is the deadline President Joe Biden has set for the U.S. utility sector to decarbonize — a goal that even some of the most ambitious players such as Xcel Energy Inc. have called a stretch.

NextEra subsidiaries, which serve 11 million people in Florida and wholesale customers nationwide, only rely on coal for 2% of their electricity production. But the company's natural gas fleet still makes up nearly half of its portfolio despite two decades of steady investments in renewables. The ability to convert many of those gas plants into zero-emitting generation will test NextEra and many other gas-heavy utilities with clean energy ambitions.

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The world's largest green hydrogen plant in Austria can produce 1,200 cubic meters of green hydrogen an hour.
Source: Siemens

Robo sees green hydrogen, a still costly and largely untested technology, as the answer. Created using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, green hydrogen could be used for such things as manufacturing and transportation and its only byproduct is water.

"We started to look at the economics of green hydrogen," Robo said. "And with renewable costs coming down, with electrolyzer [used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen] costs coming down ... we think in 2030-2035 green hydrogen on its own is going to be cost-competitive with natural gas."

At that point, green hydrogen will be able to replace natural gas in combined-cycle plants and capture the last 20% reduction that will allow the sector to truly decarbonize, Robo predicted.

Clean hydrogen catching on

NextEra announced in July 2020 that its subsidiary Florida Power & Light Co. would invest $65 million to produce green hydrogen that would replace the natural gas now used at its Okeechobee County power plant. NextEra also recently announced it invested in a company focusing on cost-effective production of industrial hydrogen production.

Interest in clean hydrogen as an energy source is also growing nationally. A new Senate bill introduced May 25 would, for the first time, extend federal tax credits to hydrogen production facilities that can cut emissions by at least 50%.

Clean energy progress among U.S. utilities is uneven, however, with some companies struggling or reluctant to shed fossil fuel-fired plants. Ultimately, to reach a decarbonized grid by 2035, Robo said regulations such as a national clean energy standard may be needed.

"Setting targets for utilities that they need to get to by a certain date for clean energy, I think would also be a very effective way," Robo said.