We Can Do Better

Last week, I attended the UNC Clean Tech Summit in Chapel Hill where I served on a panel entitled ‘Moving from ESG Integration to Sustainability Investing’. It was similar to a panel that I was on last year at the same event, and I enjoyed my experience both times as I worked to educate the audience on the difference between ESG and sustainable investing and the dangers of greenwashing.

But ever since Monday morning, I’ve just had a nagging, uneasy feeling about the opening keynote address. We went through the standard welcome and thank you process, and then the moderator of the keynote came up to introduce the speaker. The title of the speaker’s keynote was ‘Roadblocks to the Clean-energy Transition: A Tale of Good vs. Good.’ The speaker was the Chair, President, and CEO of Dominion Energy, Robert Blue.

I was a little leery initially as I know Dominion is a natural gas distributor, a fossil fuel that is a contributor to our existential climate change crisis. But, the moderator, Miki Deric of Accenture, promised to ask the “hard questions” once the keynote was over. And so, I patiently sat through his presentation.

Now I understand the economics of conferences dictate that you need to have sponsors pay for the event. Dominion Energy was a ‘Diamond’ sponsor, and as is often the case with a high-level sponsorship, you get a chance to address the conference as a whole. I’m sure that the Dominion PR and marketing folks knew this when they agreed to the sponsorship because that’s exactly what the keynote was: a PR event.

Mr. Blue had a polished presentation, including a number of points intended to perk up the ears of this typically progressive audience: the importance of “reliable and affordable” energy, adding 10,000 MW of renewable generation, and paddling to work in a canoe. One other attendee joked with a small group afterward about the obvious pandering nature of this last piece.

He complained about the onerous regulations being one of the biggest impediments to faster adoption of clean energy and reiterated several times how important it was to Dominion that they provide reliable and affordable service to their customers. The affordable part really drove me nuts, and here’s why: According to Yahoo! Finance, Dominion had over $17 billion in revenue over the trailing twelve months, with over $7 billion of that in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). That’s an almost 42% margin that most non-regulated companies would love to have.

Based on this level of profitability, Dominion has a considerable amount of leeway to keep its service affordable while they make the transition to renewables. It’s insulting for him to blame regulations and other externalities as impediments to the transition when it is his own company that is an impediment. This is only compounded by the fact that the company continues to buy back billions of dollars of stock – a practice that has nothing to do with affordability for customers and reduces the company’s ability to invest in a clean energy future. It only benefits Mr. Blue and his fellow shareholders.

He also bragged about adding 10,000 megawatts of renewables to their generation mix. Based on data pulled from Dominion’s website, as of 2021, renewables accounted for only 7% of the company’s electricity generation, with fossil fuels and nuclear accounting for the vast majority. With margins like Dominion has, plus the ability to pass capital costs onto ratepayers, the company has no excuse for such a low percentage of solar and wind generation.

Additionally, Dominion is also a major natural gas distributor. Mr. Blue never addressed the recent reports about the dangers of using natural gas as a heating and cooking fuel. I’ll take his silence on the issue to mean that he accepts the conclusions of the reports and simply doesn’t want to discuss it. Why would he when there is the potential to lose all of that revenue while his customers are sickened by the product?

And finally, the moderator at the event never asked the “tough questions” that he promised the audience. In fact, it was blatantly obvious that they were pre-agreed upon questions that were designed to extol the virtues of Dominion Energy. The audience had no opportunity to ask questions – it was, as stated earlier, a PR event.

It is dangerous for organizations and academic institutions to put corporations such as Dominion Energy on a pedestal for being sustainable or environmentally responsible when the evidence suggests otherwise. It opens up the renewable energy industry and sustainability advocacy in general to attacks from its opponents and sends the wrong message to the public – and in this case, all of the students in attendance. We can do better.


Featured Image: Frédéric Paulussen via Unsplash


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