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Green in the boardroom: the environment tops utilities execs' concerns

Environmental issues and carbon regulations top the list of what worries boards at energy utilities, as awareness of climate change grows.

Energy utility executives say that the environment and greenhouse gas regulations top their worry list.

Researcher Platts and consulting firm Capgemini on Tuesday published the results of a survey that asked 100 executives from the utilities industry what their biggest concerns are.

Although there are no federal regulations to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, utility executives are already preparing.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said that the industry's focus on environment has increased from 2006. Global warming, climate change, and carbon emissions were the top environmental issues, according to 77 percent of the participants.

The reason that utilities are taking carbon emissions so seriously is because of impending regional regulations, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast United States.

But there is also a much higher awareness of global warming and carbon emissions in the general public, which ultimately utilities feel they need to respond to, said John Christiens, vice president of Capgemini's energy and utilities practice.

"There's a lot of people talking about a carbon tax, or talking about a carbon cap and trade system, so many executives think the carbon trading will be a reality very soon," said Christiens. "Awareness has reached a certain point and executives recognize this only a matter of time starts to affect their business."

Complicating matters is the anticipated growth of electricity demand. Christiens said demand is anticipated to double by 2030 from what it is today.

To address the growth and prepare for carbon emissions regulations, utilities are looking seriously at energy efficiency technologies and renewable sources of electricity, such as solar and wind.

But even with the rapid adoption of renewable energy, it's still not enough to meet the growth in demand, Christiens said.

"There is a growing interest in an attempt to maximize deployment of those technologies. But most people understand the demand issue and it certainly cannot meet all demand growth. There will have to be investments made in carbon technologies as well," he said.

As a result, utilities are exploring so-called clean coal, which includes cleaner-burning techniques and storing carbon emissions underground, as well as the expanded use of nuclear power.

Utilities are also looking at advanced metering technology and smart grid infrastructure so they can curtail electricity use during peak times of the day.

On the question of deregulation, the study found no consensus, with utilities predicting that there could be more or less.

The aging workforce was also one of the top five concerns of utilities.