An Ambivalent Alliance: Environmentalists and Utilities Unite?

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Environmental groups have been facing off with the coal industry for years, trying to reduce the country’s dependence on coal and to mitigate coal’s most harmful effects. This has been an uphill battle for a number of reasons. First, for the moment, we rely on coal to meet our energy demand. There is currently no affordable, abundant, clean energy source to change that. Second, the coal industry has not had much interest in working with environmental groups. Particularly in regions like Central Appalachia, where coal is abundant and unemployment is sky-high, the coal industry wields a considerable amount of political, economic, and cultural power. Given the difficulty of fighting the coal industry, clean energy advocates in the region need some friends in high places. They have certainly received a boost from the Obama administration, with its stated commitment to enforcing mining regulations and its stimulus package aimed at creating green jobs. But with impending carbon regulation on the horizon, environmental groups may find more unlikely allies: utility companies.

Admittedly, utility companies burn more coal for energy than environmental and public health advocates would like, putting these constituents at odds with one another in debates over new coal-fired power plants. There has been a growing struggle over this issue in Appalachia, where a host of new coal plants have been proposed.1 Across the region, opponents have faced off with utilities, arguing that the plants are dirty and unnecessary. In Meigs County, Ohio, American Municipal Power (AMP) recently pulled out of a planned 960-megawatt coal-fired power plant after a long battle with citizens and escalating costs. In Wise County, Virginia, a broad coalition of activist organizations called Wise Energy for Virginia has been fighting a new Dominion plant. Similar opposition is taking place across the region and around the country. Yet these same groups are willing to work with utilities on cleaner energy solutions, such as wind or small hydro projects, despite this adversarial relationship. Even as they forcefully oppose Dominion’s dirty coal plant in Virginia, the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition supports a wind project proposed for the area by Dominion and BP. Says Kathy Selvage of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (a member organization of Wise Energy for Virginia): “As much as we oppose the Virginia City coal plant and the mountaintop removal coal mining on which such coal plants depend, we want to acknowledge when Dominion gets it right.”2

Similarly, after cancelling the Meigs County coal plant, American Municipal Power has proposed a 320-megawatt hydro project in the region. The Ohio Environmental Council, which worked against AMP’s coal-fired power plant, supports this effort. Says Trent Dougherty of the OEC: “We are pleased that AMP is back in the ‘mainstream’ again, doing what they do best — being a leader in cleaner energy.… While hydro-power is not environmentally benign, AMP’s project is a lower-impact hydro project that will help Ohio loosen the shackles of dirty coal power.”3 AMP is also currently pursuing funding to replace the cancelled Meigs County coal plant with a natural gas facility.

These examples suggest that utility companies are growing more concerned about their environmental image, as well as the diversity of their energy portfolios. And there are other signs that utilities are starting to take their environmental critics more seriously. In April 2010, American Electric Power (AEP) released its first Corporate Accountability Report, which integrates annual financial data with environmental and social performance data. In his introduction to the report, Michael Morris (chairman, president, and CEO of AEP) states: “We believe that global environmental and social forces will increasingly move corporations toward considering these issues as part of their routine business decisions.”4 Nolan Moser of the Ohio Environmental Council responds with cautious optimism about AEP’s move to include environmental data in its reporting: “We don’t feel that AEP is 100 percent there by any means, but this is a serious company that is interested in developing long-term solutions, and that’s clear from [this] report.”5

Of course, despite some occasional common ground, environmental groups and utilities will continue to spar over coal. But unlike the coal industry, the utilities have pressing reasons to clean up their acts and move toward more sustainable energy sources. When carbon is regulated, coal will become less cost-effective. Utilities know that if they are to survive in a rapidly changing economic and regulatory climate, they will need to diversify their energy portfolios. Some are moving more quickly than others in this direction: Duke Energy has been marketing itself as a greener utility company in recent years, investing in small wind, solar, and hydro projects. American Electric Power (AEP) has done the same. In fact, over the past few years, AEP has enlisted a number of environmental organizations to take part in stakeholder meetings to discuss such issues as renewable energy and environmental protection.6 Whether this will amount to more than a “greenwashing” campaign remains to be seen; public relations will certainly always play a part in utilities’ representations of their energy portfolios, and clean energy advocates are rightfully critical of the disconnect between “green speak” and the environmentally destructive practices of the utility companies. But given the changing regulatory climate, utilities and environmental groups may end up forging a more collaborative relationship than they might have anticipated just a few years ago. While our energy problems will not be solved overnight, collaborations between these and other stakeholders in the region may at least begin to move the region’s energy portfolio in a more sustainable direction.