Alabama Power Parent Southern Company Commits to ‘Net Zero Carbon’ by 2050 but Won’t Quit Fossil Fuels

National Carbon Capture Center. Source: Southern Company

Alabama Power Company’s parent organization told shareholders it will reduce its greenhouse carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050 for all its electric and gas operations, replacing its 2018 commitment to a “low-to-no carbon” future for all.

The company will, however, continue to use fossil fuels to generate most of its energy and depend on carbon-reduction technology and energy-efficiency, tree-planting and other programs to offset its use of natural gas and coal to generate energy.

Southern’s CEO, Tom Fanning, also said the company may be able achieve 50% of its goal by as early as 2025.

Alabama Power said in a statement Wednesday that it has already achieved 38% carbon reduction from 2007 to 2019 and expects carbon emissions to continue to fall.

“By investing in diverse generation assets and new technologies, we are building the clean, safe, reliable and affordbable energy future that our customers trust us to deliver,” according to the statement from spokesman Michael Sznajderman. “Technology advancements in the coming years and other initiatives will support ongoig efforts to redce carbon emissions.”

Southern’s commitment was praised by many, but environmental groups and others decried the lack of details in the plan and the continued heavy dependence on fossil fuels – Alabama Power, for example, has applied to state regulators to increase its use of natural gas by 2 gigawatts. The Sierra Club’s Stephen Stetson told industry newsletter Utility Dive the plan is “too light on details to form an opinion about.”

Southern Company (PRNewsFoto/Southern Company)

Some also questioned whether the use of direct air carbon capture is ready for prime time. Stetson said large-scale use of that technology has not materialized and is “not realistic” to use as a goal-setting measure. He is senior campaign representative for the nonprofit’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Daniel Tait of Huntsville, research and communications manager of the Energy and Policy Institute, pointed to Southern’s recent failed attempt to build carbon capture and sequestration into one of its plants in Mississippi. The company had to scrap the effort and write off billions of dollars in losses.

Lila Holzman of As You Sow, a nonprofit that works for corporate accountability, said, “We think that relying on these unproven or uneconomic technologies is problematic when we see that renewables-plus-storage being proven out and costs dropping from year to year.”

(Southern Company operates the federally sponsored National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville as a research facility working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-based power plants.)

As You Sow did commend Southern’s new goal, but was quoted in Greentech Media as looking forward “to more clarity on how it will achieve this new target, especially with regard to its large natural gas fleet.”

Tait blasted the company for continuing to develop new natural gas plant development, “in stark contrast” to commitments from some other major utilities that have either pledged to forego new gas plants or to achieve net-zero carbon without the use of offsets.

He said Southern has “actively blocked” progress toward renewable energy advancement. Alabama Power charges an extra fee for rooftop solar energy connection to the grid, and the Alabama Public Service Commission is considering a complaint that alleges the fee is unjust and discriminatory.

How well Southern will emphasize energy-efficiency programs in its carbon-reduction goal is questionable to some, based on past performance. Tait said the company has “slow-walked” such programs.  Shareholder Joyce Lanning of Birmingham called such efforts “low-hanging fruit” and called for them to be prioritized.

Southern’s new greenhouse gas commitment has received initial praise even on sketchy details. (Fanning said a fuller report will be released later this year.)

Dive Insight quoted institutional investor First State Investments Global Listed Infrastructure that Fanning’s announcement “demonstrates Southern Company is willing to listen, and act, to address the long-term needs of all stakeholders alike – customers, employees, and shareholders.”

Jack Ehnes, CEO of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, said, “We are encouraged by the company’s net-zero announcement and recognize the work that the board, the management team and staff are doing to carry out this commitment and help transition the United States to a low-carbon economy.”

Stetson also emphasized that Southern’s footprint includes considerable potential to increase the use of solar energy. Renewable energy consumption in the United States topped coal consumption in 2019 for the first time in 130 years, since wood was the predominant fuel, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced this week.

Activist shareholder groups such as sustainability giant Ceres are among those that have pressed Southern Company for more stringent carbon-reduction goals. Yet, Greentech Media quoted Ceres’s Dan Bakal as saying the step this week was “another encouraging step by a utility that shows increased ambition around climate.”