Can Southern Company really eliminate its carbon pollution?

John D. Wilson | April 10, 2018 | Climate Change, Energy Policy
Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, believes that nuclear power and carbon capture are a big part of Southern Company’s future.

Southern Company’s CEO Tom Fanning made a bold statement yesterday, announcing that the company he leads is now working to “take down carbon emissions to zero.” Speaking at the Bloomberg Global Energy Summit in New York City, Fanning provided limited details but said that Southern Company will use “technology solutions” to achieve “low to no carbon” by 2050.

This is big news for two reasons. First, it is frankly astounding that the very first large utility in the Southeast to publicly endorse a “no carbon” pollution goal is Southern Company. This kind of leadership could reshape public policy across the Southeast.

Second, Southern Company is responsible for nearly a quarter of the carbon pollution from southeastern utilities, so the potential impact of this mega-utility is of global significance. And this doesn’t even factor in the increasing interest that Southern Company is showing in electrifying the transportation sector – from cars to buses to … well, the sky’s the limit (for now).

We might be mistaken, but the only other large southeastern utility that we know of with a specific carbon reduction goal is Duke Energy. Duke Energy’s goal is 40% of 2005 carbon pollution levels by 2030. I also want to recognize that – notwithstanding some serious disagreements about policy issues – both the Tennessee Valley Authority and Florida Power & Light are competitive with Duke Energy for the title of lowest carbon pollution utility.

Southern Company’s roughly 90 million tons of annual carbon pollution is about average in the Southeast. Achieving the goal announced yesterday would be an enormous cut in emissions. Source: SACE analysis based on US Energy Information Administration data and other sources.

If Southern Company follows through on meeting this goal, the kind of change that is needed has only barely begun. In 2016, Southern Company’s four utilities averaged about 1,100 lbs per MWh of power demand met (including energy efficiency and rooftop solar). Taking into account Southern Company’s announced plans to complete Plant Vogtle (which we still think may never be finished) and a substantial amount of solar power, we think Southern Company is on track to reduce that pollution rate to 900 lbs per MWh (see graph at right, above). Clearly, Southern Company will need to announce many new and bold actions to make good on Tom Fanning’s worthy goal of eliminating carbon pollution.

So kudos to Southern Company’s leadership for getting behind such a worthy goal. We know that Southern Company’s approach to these matters is to discretely share this kind of information with a wide range of stakeholders, so we are confident that regulators and other key policy leaders are aware of the sincerity of this goal … and how challenging it will be to accomplish. Let’s hope we can all find common ground in moving forward, rapidly.

Southern Company delivers electric power to four southeastern states. Georgia Power is one of the “SunRisers” recognized in our 2017 Solar in the Southeast report.
John D. Wilson
For more than a decade, John has directed SACE’s research activities and led SACE’s utility reform campaigns. He often represents SACE in formal or informal stakeholder engagement with utilities, and…
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