President Donald Trump wants to revive the coal industry and bring back coal jobs. But big coal buyers like Duke Energy are moving in the opposite direction. Duke's annual sustainability report calls for continuing to invest in cleaner energy sources, like natural gas and solar power.
In 2010, Duke set a goal of cutting its carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005. That's a sort of benchmark year used in international climate agreements. In recent years, Duke has closed a dozen coal-fired power plants, and more shutdowns are in the works.
Carbon emissions now are down 29 percent from 2005 levels. So in its latest Sustainability Report, Duke raises that goal, says spokesman Randy Wheeless.
"In 2010, we had a goal of a 17 percent reduction by 2020. But we're easily passing that goal, so it just made sense when we looked at the investment we're going to be making in clean energy in the future, that we can do better, and so we've upped that goal to 40 percent by 2030," he said.
Duke has announced plans to invest $11 billion in new, cleaner generating plants over the next decade. It estimates that by 2030, 36 percent of its electricity will come from natural gas, 9 percent from hydroelectric, wind and solar. Coal will fall to 27 percent, down from 61 percent in 2005.
"Our fleet overall will get cleaner, and emissions will go down, and that's how we'll meet this 40 percent reduction by 2030," Wheeless said.
Large companies put out sustainability reports like this every year. They’re voluntary, designed to promote companies to investors, customers and businesses.
Duke isn't alone in resisting a shift back to coal. Reuters news service recently surveyed 32 U.S. utilities, and found most have no plans to halt investments in cleaner energy. So even if the Trump administration creates a more favorable environment for coal producers, it’s unlikely demand for coal will make a big rebound.
Surveys show consumers want more renewable energy. So do climate scientists. Brian Magi is an atmospheric scientist at UNC Charlotte. He says cutting emissions is critical to improving air quality.
"The ideal portfolio is one where we are de-carbonized, we've moved completely away from fossil fuels and reduced the emissions - carbon emissions - to a bare minimum," Magi said.
He says the trend is going in the right direction, though not as fast as a scientist might like. He notes that big utilities can't make the switch all at once. They also have to consider their businesses as they plan the transition.
Duke's report says it expects to meet a goal of owning or contracting at least 8,000 megawatts of power from wind, solar or biofuels by 202o. As of Dec. 31, 2016, it had 5,400 megawatts, up by 1,000 during the past year.
The report also takes note of employee safety. Duke says it had no work-related deaths among employees or contractors last year, an improvement from 5 in 2015 and 4 and 2014.
Read the full Duke Energy 2016 Sustainability Report (PDF)
April 5, 2017, Reuters.com, "Trump declares end to 'war on coal,' but utilities aren't listening"