For The Record

Southern Co. says it will hit ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

By: - May 27, 2020 9:14 pm

Georgia Power’s parent company says it expects to reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. Plant Scherer near Macon has long been one of the country’s biggest carbon polluters. Contributed/Altamaha Riverkeeper

The parent company of Georgia Power announced Wednesday that it is on track to beat its self-imposed deadline to cut carbon emissions in half in the next decade and said it will strive to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Tom Fanning, chief executive officer of the Southern Company, announced during the company’s annual shareholder meeting that the public utility has reduced emissions by 44% since 2007. Fanning said the utility could hit its goal of reducing emissions by 50% by 2025 – five years ahead of schedule.

Fanning also announced Wednesday that the utility would ditch its plan for “low to no” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and instead shoot for “net zero” status. He said the company would adopt negative carbon solutions, such as a technology that removes carbon from the air and planting trees where there are none.

“We are excited about the opportunities to incorporate net zero concepts into our long-term strategy,” Fanning told shareholders during a virtual meeting.

“Notably, we have committed to both our 2030 and 2050 greenhouse reduction goals in the absence of any state or federal mandates. Rather, we produce these goals because they are good for customers and communities that we are privileged to serve,” he said.

Fanning noted the utility’s gradual shift away from energy generation from coal – the biggest contributor to carbon emissions. Last year, coal represented about 22% of the Southern Company’s total energy supply mix. For the first quarter of this year, coal powered about 13% of the company’s output.

Fanning did not say when the utility would retire the rest of its coal-fired power plants.

“It’s not just the idea of reducing coal. We’ve got to consider what happens to employees. We’ve got to consider what happens to the tax base in the communities we serve and the larger economic impact,” Fanning said.

He also highlighted the company’s increased investment in renewable energy, such as solar, which represents about 12% of the company’s portfolio.

Environmentalists, though, note that natural gas – a fossil fuel – still accounts for at least half the company’s energy offerings and argue that the plan announced Wednesday lacks details and urgency.

“Southern Company’s announcement reflects progress, but 2050 is not nearly good enough for its customers who could be saving money now by a faster pivot away from expensive coal-fired electricity,” Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement.

Stetson also said the company’s net-zero target relies on the development of technologies – like direct carbon capture – that are not yet viable or cost effective.

“The company agrees that solar and energy storage are foundational technologies in our region’s future energy mix. Ratepayers shouldn’t have to subsidize technology that remains on the horizon — what we need already exists,” he said.

The board also rejected proposals from stockholders calling for an independent board chair – today, the company’s CEO is also the board’s chair – and more detailed annual reporting on the company’s lobbying activities, including what issues are being championed or fought on the state level.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.