Tracked: The U.S. Utilities ESG Report Card
This was originally posted on July 15, 2021, on Visual Capitalist.
As emissions reductions and sustainable practices become more important for electrical utilities, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting is coming under increased scrutiny.
Once seen as optional by most companies, ESG reports and sustainability plans have become commonplace in the power industry. In addition to reporting what’s needed by regulatory state laws, many utilities utilize reporting frameworks like the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) ESG Initiative or the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards.
But inconsistent regulations, mixed definitions, and perceived importance levels have led some utilities to report significantly more environmental metrics than others.
How do U.S. utilities’ ESG reports stack up? This infographic from the National Public Utilities Council tracks the ESG metrics reported by 50 different U.S. based investor-owned utilities (IOUs).
What’s Consistent Across ESG Reports
To complete the assessment of U.S. utilities, ESG reports, sustainability plans, and company websites were examined. A metric was considered tracked if it had concrete numbers provided, so vague wording or non-detailed projections weren’t included.
Of the 50 IOU parent companies analyzed, 46 have headquarters in the U.S. while four are foreign-owned, but all are regulated by the states in which they operate.
For a few of the most agreed-upon and regulated measures, U.S. utilities tracked them almost across the board. These included direct scope 1 emissions from generated electricity, the utility’s current fuel mix, and water and waste treatment.
Another commonly reported metric was scope 2 emissions, which include electricity emissions purchased by the utility companies for company consumption. However, a majority of the reporting utilities labeled all purchased electricity emissions as scope 2, even though purchased electricity for downstream consumers are traditionally considered scope 3 or value-chain emissions:
- Scope 1: Direct (owned) emissions.
- Scope 2: Indirect electricity emissions from internal electricity consumption. Includes purchased power for internal company usage (heat, electrical).
- Scope 3: Indirect value-chain emissions, including purchased goods/services (including electricity for non-internal use), business travel, and waste.
ESG Inconsistencies, Confusion, and Unimportance
Even putting aside mixed definitions and labeling, there were many inconsistencies and question marks arising from utility ESG reports.
For example, some utilities reported scope 3 emissions as business travel only, without including other value chain emissions. Others included future energy mixes that weren’t separated by fuel and instead grouped into “renewable” and “non-renewable.”
The biggest discrepancies, however, were between what each utility is required to report, as well as what they choose to. That means that metrics like internal energy consumption didn’t need to be reported by the vast majority.
Likewise, some companies didn’t need to report waste generation or emissions because of “minimal hazardous waste generation” that fell under a certain threshold. Other metrics like internal vehicle electrification were only checked if the company decided to make a detailed commitment and unveil its plans.
As pressure for the electricity sector to decarbonize continues to increase at the federal level, however, many of these inconsistencies are roadblocks to clear and direct measurements and reduction strategies.
The National Public Utilities Council is a collaborative body of industry experts coming together to solve decarbonization challenges in the power sector and the proud sponsor of the Decarbonization Channel.
3 Learnings for Scaling Up Wind and Solar Power
Streamlining processes, investing in infrastructure, and promoting local manufacturing can pave the way for wind and solar adoption.
3 Learnings for Wind and Solar Power Scale-Up
To keep the increase in global temperatures to 1.5°C, the International Energy Agency (IEA) states that the world must triple its renewable power capacity by 2030.
However, swift and widespread adoption depends on the removal of various bottlenecks in project pipelines worldwide.
We’ve partnered with the National Public Utilities Council to visualize data from the IEA and the Energy Transitions Commission to highlight three areas of improvement, critical to the rapid adoption of renewables.
1. Planning and Permitting
Currently, regulatory and administrative barriers lead to lengthy project timelines worldwide.
A wind project, for example, can take 10–12 years of development, while solar projects can take four years.
The Energy Transitions Commission suggests a faster process, including quicker site mapping, permit applications, and environmental surveys.
Policymakers can help reduce project timelines by allocating land for renewables, setting permit targets, and digitalizing the permit application process. As a result, the development time for wind projects could be reduced to 4.5–5.5 years, and solar projects could be online in one year.
2. Grid Availability for Solar and Wind
Connecting renewable energy projects to the grid has posed a challenge.
As of 2023, almost 1,500 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar projects in advanced stages of development were still off the electricity grid.
Excluding China and India, transmission and distribution investments have increased by only 1% annually since 2010. According to the IEA, however, government and stakeholder investment in grids must double to over $600 billion annually to meet climate targets.
3. Supply Chain Diversification
The final area for improvement, when it comes to expediting global wind and solar power scale-up, is supply chain diversification.
Currently, China heavily concentrates the global manufacturing capacity on clean energy, leading to a heavy dependency on imports for the rest of the world.
|Share of Manufacturing Capacity, 2021
|Central & South America
Global manufacturing capacity share is calculated by averaging the global manufacturing shares of individual components (i.e., wind: tower, nacelle, blade; solar: wafers, cells, modules). Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
According to research by ONYX Insight, almost 60% of wind farm operators reported that supply chain issues were their biggest challenge over the next 2–3 years.
International collaboration and investment, however, can help diversify manufacturing outside of China. In addition, policymakers can also implement policies and incentives that encourage the growth of local manufacturing capacity for renewables.
All in all, streamlining processes, investing in infrastructure, and promoting local manufacturing can pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.
Download the 2023 Decarbonization Report.
Visualizing All the Nuclear Waste in the World
Despite concerns about nuclear waste, high-level radioactive waste constitutes less than 0.25% of all radioactive waste ever generated.
Visualizing All the Nuclear Waste in the World
Nuclear power is among the safest and cleanest sources of electricity, making it a critical part of the clean energy transition.
However, nuclear waste, an inevitable byproduct, is often misunderstood.
In collaboration with the National Public Utilities Council, this graphic shows the volume of all existing nuclear waste, categorized by its level of hazardousness and disposal requirements, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Storage and Disposal
Nuclear provides about 10% of global electricity generation.
Nuclear waste, produced as a result of this, can be divided into four different types:
- Very low-level waste: Waste suitable for near-surface landfills, requiring lower containment and isolation.
- Low-level waste: Waste needing robust containment for up to a few hundred years, suitable for disposal in engineered near-surface facilities.
- Intermediate-level waste: Waste that requires a greater degree of containment and isolation than that provided by near-surface disposal.
- High-level waste: Waste is disposed of in deep, stable geological formations, typically several hundred meters below the surface.
Despite safety concerns, high-level radioactive waste constitutes less than 0.25% of total radioactive waste reported to the IAEA.
|Disposed (cubic meters)
|Stored (cubic meters)
|Total (cubic meters)
|Very low-level waste
|Intermediate level waste
Stored and disposed radioactive waste reported to the IAEA under the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Data is from the last reporting year which varies by reporting country, 2019-2023.
The amount of waste produced by the nuclear power industry is small compared to other industrial activities.
While flammable liquids comprise 82% of the hazardous materials shipped annually in the U.S., radioactive waste accounts for only 0.01%.
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