Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy is following the example of an increasing number of U.S. utilities in promising to reduce its carbon footprint to zero by 2050. 

But its reliance on its own coal-fired power plants in a region with relatively low levels of renewable energy could make that goal even more challenging than it’s expected to be for other U.S. utilities that are making similar pledges. And the Akron, Ohio-based utility holding company’s new pledge doesn’t clarify how it will take on the challenge of ending its use of coal-fired power. 

FirstEnergy’s climate strategy released Monday notes that the utility will “need to move beyond” the coal-fired power that now makes up about four-fifths of the generation capacity under its control. But its target for exiting coal “by 2050 or earlier” provides little guidance on how this will play a part in reaching its 2030 goal of cutting emissions by 30 percent from 2019 levels. 

Much of the rest of its strategy pertains to grid investments and efficiency improvements for its transmission subsidiaries and its 10 electric distribution companies serving about 6 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland and New York. 

The majority of these utilities are in the territory of mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM and secure energy and capacity through its wholesale markets. Carbon dioxide emissions from PJM’s 13-state footprint have fallen by 34 percent from 2005 to 2019 to stand at 850 pounds per megawatt-hour of generation, according to a March report

Setting the boundaries of FirstEnergy’s carbon-reduction goals

“Our carbon neutrality and greenhouse gas reduction goals pertain to emissions over which we have operational ownership and control, not power supplied outside our fleet,” FirstEnergy spokesperson Tricia Ingraham wrote in a Wednesday email. 

Those emissions under its operational control include those from its vehicle fleet, she stated. FirstEnergy is asking regulators to approve plans to replace about 30 percent of that fleet with electric or hybrid vehicles by 2030, and then to reach 100 percent electrification by 2050. 

The plans also include improving the operational efficiency of its transmission network and replacing grid equipment that contains sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), a potent greenhouse gas. 

FirstEnergy’s generation fleet under its operational control consists of 3,780 megawatts, of which about 3,000 MW come from two coal-fired power plants in West Virginia; the remainder is from pumped hydro storage facilities. Those generators take part in PJM’s markets, rather than serving FirstEnergy’s distribution utilities directly. 

“Changes planned at our generating fleet to achieve the 30 percent target by 2030 include evaluating the ability to increase turn-down capability, dispatch units to reflect the cost of carbon, embracing future technologies, and modifying coal contracts as appropriate,” Ingraham said in the email. PJM has no carbon pricing market mechanisms today but has launched a stakeholder process to study the potential for creating one.  

FirstEnergy currently does not own any regulated renewable generation, but it is seeking approval next year to build “at least” 50 megawatts of solar in West Virginia, the company’s plan states. The company has not detailed plans to add more zero-carbon generation, and, Ingraham added, “The ability to reduce our [greenhouse gas] emissions is not reliant on adding zero-carbon energy since our goal is based on absolute emissions and not carbon intensity." 

FirstEnergy’s changing resource mix and troubling links to Ohio bribery investigation

That fleet is a fraction of the nearly 17,000 MW of capacity, including about 1,900 MW of renewable energy, that FirstEnergy used to control. But most of that generation capacity is owned by subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2018 and emerged from that process as a standalone company under the name Energy Harbor earlier this year. 

Energy Harbor owns four nuclear power plants that have faced profitability challenges for years, including the Davis-Besse and Perry plants in Ohio, which are set to receive billions of dollars in aid under the state’s House Bill 6, passed last year. The law also directs state ratepayer funds to support two coal-fired power plants operated by Ohio Valley Electric Corp. and jointly owned by the state’s investor-owned utilities.

In July, federal agents arrested Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four other men on charges of orchestrating a $61 million bribery conspiracy to fund candidacies of fellow Republican state lawmakers to gain their support for the bill and to pay for efforts to defeat a ballot initiative to overturn it last year. 

While FirstEnergy and Energy Harbor are not named in the federal indictment, U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers has made it clear that those companies are considered to be the source of much of the money involved in the alleged scheme, and both have received federal subpoenas seeking information associated with the investigation. 

FirstEnergy’s board of directors fired CEO Charles Jones and two other senior executives last month for violating “certain FirstEnergy policies and its code of conduct.” Jones has denied any part in the alleged bribery scheme, and FirstEnergy and Energy Harbor have denied wrongdoing.

Beyond offering subsidies to nuclear and coal plants that might otherwise be closed down due to their unprofitability, HB 6 also eliminates Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable energy funding streams, which could undermine expanding those resources for carbon reduction for FirstEnergy’s utilities in that state.

“FirstEnergy has consistently sought bailouts of its affiliate coal plants while pushing efforts to undermine clean energy goals and programs to reduce energy waste,” Neil Waggoner, the Sierra Club’s Ohio campaign representative, wrote in a Wednesday email. 

“This announcement comes at the same time the company is firing top executives due to serious ethical and legal concerns and possible illegal activity stemming from the passage of HB 6, a bill that provided bailouts for dirty energy and gutted Ohio's clean energy and energy efficiency standards,” he wrote. “Pledges are admirable. Now, let's see the implementation plan.”