Berkshire Hathaway’s energy company is about to hit a major renewable energy milestone

Source: By Tim Mullaney, CNBC • Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2023

Siemens wind turbines operate on a wind farm in Marshalltown, Iowa, where many of Berkshire's first big renewable investments were made over the past decade as the former MidAmerican Energy under now-Berkshire Energy was well situated in one of the nation's top wind corridors.
Siemens wind turbines operate on a wind farm in Marshalltown, Iowa, where many of Berkshire’s first big renewable investments were made over the past decade as the former MidAmerican Energy under now-Berkshire Energy was well situated in one of the nation’s top wind corridors.
Timothy Fadek | Corbis News | Getty Images

With annual meeting season coming soon, Warren Buffett’s climate record is back in the news – and activists are still not happy.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate faces three different shareholder resolutions heading into its annual “Woodstock for capitalism” on May 6. While no one expects any of the resolutions to pass – Buffett’s opposition and 32% voting stake will likely prevent that – they are attracting support from high-profile investors like California’s $445 billion pension giant CalPERS and have in recent years seen an increasing base of Berkshire shareholders push up vote totals against Buffett’s clearly stated wishes.

The resolutions demand better disclosure of climate risks Berkshire faces from its mix of utilities, reinsurance companies, shipping coal on its Burlington Northern railroad, and investments in oil stocks, which he has been increasing recently, specifically through a big stake in Occidental.

Buffett’s climate metrics getting better

Berkshire is a climate paradox: Many of its climate metrics are improving rapidly, if not as fast as some competitors. The biggest: Its utilities’ renewable power projects completed or under constructions are on track to double the recent national average of electricity generation from renewable sources, and its revenue from coal shipping has moved steadily lower over the past decade. But Berkshire both dishes out and absorbs climate risk – in emissions from power plants and, through its investments in Chevron and Occidental, gasoline-powered cars; and in its insurance exposure to flooding and wildfires that are expected to worsen as global temperatures rise.

“It’s fair to say that for their size, the breadth and complexity of their business, that their approach to climate change continues to lag behind peers,” CFRA Research analyst Cathy Seifert said. “They could be front and center, but I don’t think they will be.”

Any discussion of Berkshire and climate necessarily begin with its utility business, since electricity production accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Berkshire Hathaway Energy, whose CEO Greg Abel is the heir apparent to the 92-year old Buffett himself as the parent company’s chief executive, would be the fifth-biggest U.S. utility holding company if it were independent.

Berkshire Energy spokesman Brandon Zero said the company would have no comment.

BHE is moving rapidly to shift its power mix to wind and solar. Counting plants under construction, Berkshire will soon get 45% of its power from wind, solar, geothermal energy and hydropower, according to Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s annual report, which will comfortable exceed the 21.5% the government reports that all utilities actually generated in 2022. The 31% of electricity capacity Berkshire will be getting from natural gas when its coming plants are done is less than the 40% national share. But it still uses more coal, the dirtiest major electricity fuel – coal represents 23% of Berkshire’s power mix – more than the national average of 20%.

This is a dramatic shift from as recently as 2014, when Berkshire got about a quarter of its power from renewables. Back then, Berkshire’s Oregon-based utility Pacificorp made 60% of its electricity from coal; now it’s 43%, all produced in plants opened by 1986. Iowa-based Mid-American Energy went from 55% to 21%. Along the way, Mid-American built or expanded more than 30 wind plants, exploiting a Midwestern natural resource, while Pacificorp added or expanded 14.

Overall, the utility group has closed 16 coal-fired plants and reduced its carbon emissions by 27% since 2005, according to its annual report, putting it well on track to meet its target of a 50% reduction by 2030, helped by announced closing plans for 16 more coal plants. Railroad emissions are also on track to drop 30 percent from 2018 levels by 2030, the company says.

That’s still not as much as some other utilities have done, and Berkshire has been either less aggressive or less specific in its commitments to bring down carbon emissions, said Daniel Stewart, energy and climate program manager for As You Sow, a shareholder-advisory group sponsoring a resolution at Berkshire’s meeting.

“At a high level, on the utility side there are encouraging signs,” Stewart said, though climate leaders like Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy are cutting emissions 80 percent by 2030 and eliminating coal faster than Berkshire. He added that emerging science should let utilities shift the date when they will reach net zero emissions to 2035 or 2040, compared with 2050. ”“What [also] jumps out at me is how poor the disclosure is.”

The disclosure issues are the heart of the shareholder resolutions, which have become an annual thing for Berkshire.

Three resolutions — one each sponsored by California’s pension plan, Illinois’ pension plan, and As You Sow — cover the topic.

As You Sow asks for data particularly about Berkshire’s insurance businesses, and a plan for measuring and reducing the climate impact of businesses the unit invests in or insures. Proponents point to rising spending on losses in natural disasters, including the $3.4 billion in claims Berkshire paid related to Hurricane Ian last year, according to Berkshire’s proxy statement.

Illinois’ proposal asks for details on how the company’s audit committee measures climate risks, including whether climate issues will play a role in Berkshire’s closely-watched succession planning.

And CalPERS asked for “an annual assessment addressing how the Company manages physical and transitional climate-related risks and opportunities,” the proxy says. The giant pension fund has also voted early against management’s nominees to the board’s audit committee, citing climate issues.

“When I talk to investors, they’re really focused on transparency,” said Kirsten Spalding, vice president of the Ceres Investor Network, a liberal-leaning investor advisory group. “It’s a matter of good governance [to] know, what are the plans? What are the risks?”

Regulators, investors can tip future balance

Berkshire’s hand may also be forced, fairly soon, by coming state regulations on insurance disclosure and federal securities disclosure rules that require climate risk audits, Seifert said.

The company argues that it already discloses enough. In the proxy, Berkshire points to its energy division’s annual reports that disclose its direct emissions, and contends that its executives and board manage climate risk in part through stress testing its coverage portfolio.

“I don’t think I’ve had three letters in the last year from shareholders,” on climate issues, Buffett said at the 2021 annual meeting, adding that the proposals would require climate audits of Berkshire’s Dairy Queen chain and Borsheims’ jewelry stores when the climate impact is concentrated in utilities, the railroad and the insurance unit. “Overwhelmingly  the people who bought Berkshire with their own money voted against those proposals.”

But the losses have become smaller in recent years, as big index funds have owned more of Berkshire, and the newer generations among Berkshire shareholders within families do have changing values from their parents. In 2021, votes against Berkshire management were higher than ever before — still 75% with the board, but roughly 25% in favor of proposals, and that was twice the highest vote against Berkshire’s management on a percentage basis ever. Last year, a measure from As You Sow on greenhouse gas emissions disclosures received support from 47% of independent shareholders (26.5% overall). Over the past decade, many climate proposals had never received as much as 10% support from shareholders.

Spalding and Stewart argue that the losses are worth taking in the shareholder vote, believing the percentage of pro-climate disclosure votes from shareholders other than Buffett and his close aides approaches 50 percent, pressure for change will build and eventually yield results.

“Things change,” Stewart said. “Because education occurs.”

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