Electricity Demand Is Surging. Let’s Not Fry the Planet in Response.

Electric utilities from Georgia to Wisconsin to Virginia are predicting a dizzying surge in power demand from new industrial facilities, electric vehicles and, most of all, the data centers that store our digital photos and will enable large-language models for artificial intelligence. For months now, they have been signaling that they won’t be able to keep up.

To keep the lights on, many utility companies are proposing to build dozens of new power plants that burn natural gas. North Carolina-based Duke Energy alone wants to add 8.9 gigawatts of new gas-fired capacity — more than the entire country added in 2023. Using their own projections of soaring energy demands as justification, these companies are also pushing back on the climate targets set by their states and the Biden administration.

If state regulators sign off on these plans, they will be gambling with our country’s future. We need to electrify everything from cars to appliances to slow climate change, but we won’t be able to reach our climate goals if we power all of those machines with dirty energy.

There is a better way. But to get there, legislators will need to overhaul the incentives driving utilities to double down on natural gas, so that they can turn a profit without cooking the planet.

Companies like Duke, Dominion Energy and Georgia Power argue that they need more gas-fired plants to reliably provide power during times of peak demand — for instance, on a hot summer weekday afternoon when home cooling systems and data servers are all humming at maximum output, and the grid strains to keep up. But those peaks tend to materialize only for a few dozen hours per year, and there are ways to deal with them that don’t require a massive amount of new methane-burning infrastructure.

The real reason the utilities want to build these plants is quite simple: The more stuff they build, the more money they make. Regulators let utilities charge their customers enough money to cover what they spend on assets like combustion turbines and wires, plus a generous rate of return (up to 10 percent) for their investors. This longstanding arrangement incentivizes power providers to build expensive things whether society needs them or not, in lieu of lower-cost, cleaner options, and to invoke their duty to keep the lights on as a post hoc rationalization.

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