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What is your electric utility doing to combat climate change? Most people don’t know, study says

A study shows most people are in the dark when it comes to their electric utility's plan to combat climate change, so ABC10 checked in with some local utilities.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — What is your electric utility doing to combat climate change? Does it even have a plan?

If you don’t know the answer to that, you’re not alone.

A new study shows that – nationwide – there’s a huge disconnect for electric customers when it comes to knowing what their own utility is doing to combat climate change.

According to the J.D. Power Sustainability Index, “just 23% of customers (nationwide) are aware their electric utility has declared a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

This study “evaluates electric utility customer awareness, support, engagement and advocacy for their local utility’s climate sustainability programs and goals” among the nation’s 35 largest electric utilities.

The good news? the Sacramento Municipal Utility District tied for the highest score on the index!

The bad news: that score was 33 out of 100.

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So not a lot of people know about their electric utility’s efforts to combat climate change. That’s why ABC10 wants to help change that.

SMUD plans to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity generation by 2030 — less than a decade from now. SMUD says that will improve air quality, create jobs and focus on equity.

If you think that sounds a bit ambitious m SMUD agrees with you. But they say this is a climate crisis that can’t wait.

SMUD launched its 2030 Zero Carbon Plan at the urging of its Board of Directors.

Heidi Sanborn is the Vice President.

“We’ve all seen and felt the effects of climate change in California. They become more obvious each year,” she said. “Devastating droughts and wildfires, in part, lead…the board’s unanimous decision to issue a climate emergency declaration in 2020.”

Scott Martin, SMUD’s chief strategy officer, admits the utility’s 2030 Zero Carbon Plan is ambitious.

“Trying to eliminate our carbon emissions from our energy supply completely by 2030,” he explained. “We're probably one of the only utilities in the world that has really set this aggressive of a goal.”

“To those who say SMUD is moving too quickly, I say, ‘If not now, when? And if not us, who?’” Sanborn underscored.

SMUD is already more than halfway there. In 2020, the utility says, its power supply was more than 60 percent carbon-free.

The plan to get totally carbon-free in its generation of electricity by 2030 involves retiring two of SMUD’s five natural gas power plants and making changes to the other three. It also includes ramping up investments in clean technology like wind turbines, solar panels, and utility-scale batteries to store that renewable energy.

Earlier this year, elected officials and business leaders celebrated the installation of SMUD’s first large-scale lithium-ion battery storage units at the utility’s Sacramento Power Academy – or Hedge Solar Farm – just east of Sacramento.

“We all know that solar and wind energy do not produce power 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Sanborn told the crowd. “The old days of ‘use it or lose it’ will become a thing of the past when we’re able to store clean power for future use.”

SMUD started with these six battery storage units.

“You can kind of see, the general scale, that's four megawatts in these very basic batteries here,” Martin said, gesturing to the big, boxy, shipping-container-like batteries.

SMUD says those four megawatts (MW) of electricity from stored solar energy can power 800 homes for two hours.

“But if you take this to a bigger scale… over the next few years, we're not going to have just four megawatts like this,” Martin said.

SMUD anticipates adding up to 1,100 MW of new local short-duration battery storage, “to store the solar when it's in excess and to use it when we need it when it's not available,” Martin said.

So what is this whole effort going to cost SMUD customers?

“We expect, and we've committed as part of the plan, to not increase rates faster than the rate of inflation,” Martin said.

He said the plan will also create new jobs in the energy sector through training programs.

“We expect to bring thousands of jobs to this region. We want to prepare our communities - especially our under-resourced communities - to take those jobs,” Martin said.

SMUD CEO and General Manager Paul Lau said, “our work will showcase Sacramento as a clean-tech region, attracting climate-friendly businesses and creating good-paying jobs.”

He said he hopes the initiative will help lead, in the long run, to better air quality as well. That’s important because the American Lung Association says Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Placer, and Nevada counties are on a list of the 25 worst counties in the nation for air pollution. That same study shows — people of color and people experiencing poverty are among those hardest hit by this.

SMUD is the nation’s sixth-largest, community-owned, not-for-profit electric service provider, and they’ve been around for more than 75 years.

What about the overall state of California?

Like SMUD, the state also has a goal of getting 100% clean electricity.

RELATED: California making major progress on clean energy goals

The state’s deadline isn’t until 2045, but the California Energy Commission said we’re ahead of schedule.

The goal includes a benchmark of getting 60% of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, and the commission said 59% of the state’s energy came from renewables in 2020, so almost hitting the benchmark a full decade early.

Meanwhile, PG&E – the largest electric utility in not only California but also the U.S. - announced in June a "multi-decade plan that aims to more rapidly reduce to zero its net greenhouse gas emissions while still using natural gas to produce power," the Associated Press reported.

RELATED: PG&E pledges net-zero emissions by 2040, will keep using gas

By 2040, PG&E plans to remove more carbon from the air than it puts out. That goal is five years earlier than the deadline set by California.

PG&E estimates that 50% of its customers’ electricity in 2021 came from renewable sources including solar, wind, geothermal and small hydroelectric power. PG&E says that number increases to 93% when adding in the other greenhouse-gas-free sources of nuclear and large hydroelectric power.

Plus, ABC10 reported in April on a newly operational 182.5 MW energy storage system in Northern California that was designed and constructed in a partnership between Tesla and PG&E. The system includes 256 Tesla Megapack battery units on 33 concrete slabs and has the capacity to store and dispatch up to 730-megawatt hours of energy to the electrical grid at a maximum rate of 182.5 megawatts per hour during periods of high demand, PG&E said in a statement.

RELATED: PG&E's Tesla Megapack battery in California now operational

The system is one of nine projects that would bring PG&E's total battery energy storage system capacity to more than 3,330 MW by 2024, the utility said.

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