If National Climate Goals Disappear, What Happens in Alabama?

The Barry Electric Generating Plant is a natural gas and coal-fired plant on the Mobile River.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement thrilled his backers in solid red Alabama and alarmed the state’s environmentalists, who say Alabama is less prepared than other places to handle on its own the effects of a warming planet.

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan called the Paris accord ineffective, too-costly, toothless and “not in our best interests.” Both of Alabama’s U.S. senators signed letters backing the nation’s withdrawal from the pact.

Nationally, environmentalists called for states and cities to continue to work to solve problems, especially the impact carbon dioxide emissions have on global warming. But those solutions “are virtually nonexistent in Alabama,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, a health advocacy organization headquartered in Birmingham. “There are no plans to reduce climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies.”

Hansen blamed the state for not adequately funding its agencies that might mitigate problems. He said there is no state water management plan for drought, inadequate infrastructure to handle extreme weather and no plan to address coastal flooding where the sea level already is rising.

“We are woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change,” he warned. Hansen called on Alabama residents “to demand better policies from the Alabama Public Service Commission and local and state government.”

ADEM Quiet, Business Position on Table

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management elected not to respond to the Paris withdrawal, according to Lynn Battle, director of external affairs.

One important Alabama lobbying group, the Business Council of Alabama, entered the fray ahead of the latest Trump headline. Its 2017 Legislative Agenda supported funding ADEM for “necessary services,” for implementing Alabama’s drought-management program and for gathering data about Alabama’s water resources. It opposed “implementing environmental policy or regulations on the state level that would put Alabama business, manufacturing, and/or economic development at a disadvantage.” BCA called for Alabama government agencies to challenge “actions taken by federal agencies that are not based on sound science or actions that exceed the authority granted by the U.S. Congress.”

Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, said a failure to address warming temperatures is of special concern to the fragile coastline, including the Mobile bay and delta.

In addition, she said, “We already are experiencing expensive public health challenges and threats to the safety and security of our drinking water supplies … and Alabama’s 132,000 miles of waterways are already threatened by a quickly changing climate.” Rivers’ flow and quality are affected by increasing periods of drought.

John Northrop of Birmingham, an organizer of Alabama’s newest nonprofit environmental group, Climate Change Lobby, said Trump’s withdrawal bolsters the notion that climate change is a fake crisis, “especially in red states like Alabama.” This will make it harder to take steps necessary to prevent consequences of climate change, he said.

“Paris adds to our sense of urgency” to win support for CCL’s strategy of pricing carbon through fee-and-dividend legislation, he said.

While public opinion in red states such as Alabama may still back Trump on this issue, a recent national poll by Yale and George Mason universities found that 69 percent of Americans, including 47 percent of the president’s supporters, supported staying in the Paris pact.

And some analysts note the U.S. can’t fully remove itself from the agreement until after the 2020 presidential election, presenting the possibility federal policy could be reversed.

Solar panels

Will Clean Energy Advance, Regardless? 

Regardless of the politics, many believe the nation will continue to advance toward use of clean energy and away from fossil fuels, especially coal.

A new study from Michigan Technological University said: “Solar has come down radically in cost. It’s technically viable, and coupled with natural gas plants, other renewables, and storage, we have ways to produce all the electricity we need without coal, period.”

Dan Tait, CEO of the north Alabama nonprofit organization EnergyAlabama, doesn’t take a stand on the climate politics, but he believes the “landscape in Alabama is good and getting better” for sustainable energy.

“It’s the most economic choice we can make – businesses are still motivated to reduce their costs, homeowners still want choices for where their energy comes from, and local governments want to grow their economy and put people to work,” Tait said.

“That will continue to happen here in Alabama with or without (the Paris agreement),” he said.

State’s Use of Coal, Gas  

For now, however, Alabama contributes more than its share of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to other states, because of its choice of energy sources. From 2000 to 2014, the most recent figures available from the federal Energy Information Administration, the state ranked 15th in the nation in total emissions and 12th on a per capita basis even though its carbon dioxide emissions fell 19 percent in that period.

America’s electric utilities generate the largest share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of any business sector, twice as much as the next sector, transportation.

Alabama’s predominant electric utility, Alabama Power Company, produces more GHG than any other Southern Company subsidiary. In fact, Alabama Power’s James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant, on the Locust Fork, is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in the country, according to a recent analysis by The Weather Channel.

Carbon dioxide makes up as much as 99 percent of GHG, with methane, nitrous oxide and other gases making up the rest.

Overall, the electric utility industry reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent from 2005 to 2016, and that trend is expected to continue, according to the Edison Electric Institute, which represents all investor-owned electric utilities.

Government figures show the U.S. generated about 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2015. About 67 percent of that was from fossil fuels; coal and natural gas accounted for 33 percent each of that total. Nuclear generated 20 percent, hydro power 6 percent, and wind, sun and other renewables contributed 7 percent.

Wilson Dam in North Alabama

In contrast, coal makes up 53 percent of Alabama Power’s overall mix of fuels, although that is down from nearly 80 percent about 20 years ago, according to spokesman Michael Sznajderman. He noted that Alabama Power has reduced its suite of coal-fired generating plants from 23 to 10 in the past two years. Nuclear power generates 23 percent of the current total, with natural gas accounting for 19 percent and hydropower 5 percent.

Sznajderman said wind and solar power also are used but are not included in these figures because they are intermittent sources of power. The company brought two small solar facilities on line this year at Anniston Army Depot, with 7 megawatts of generating capacity, and Fort Rucker, which has 10 megawatts of generating capacity. A 72-megawatt solar facility is being constructed in Chambers County to help Walmart meet its corporate goal to rely 100 percent on renewable sources of energy by 2020.

Alabama Power did not comment directly on the Paris decision. Sznajderman said the company supports using an “all of the above” fuel mix strategy to “provide flexibility amid changing market conditions, supply situations, fuel price fluctuations,” and other situations. He said the company expects to increase the use of renewables over time, but it currently does not need new power generation.

Influence of Shareholder Opinions 

Shareholders in Alabama Power’s parent company, the Southern Company, recently came close to forcing the utility to report on how operations could be aligned with a low-carbon future. On May 24, 46 percent of its shareholders – up from 34 percent last year – voted to require the company to explain how it hopes to meet a 2-degree Celsius global warming scenario targeted by the Paris accord.

Southern Co. chairman and CEO Tom Fanning said in a recent CNBC interview that he does not believe carbon dioxide “is a primary contributor to the global warming.” That puts him at odds with most scientists and accepted research but in line with the president.

If Southern Co. shareholders came close to winning that vote, shareholders of Pennsylvania electric utility PPL voted 57 percent in favor of a similar resolution.

While coal still has significant influence in Alabama, the industry is in decline. Overall, U.S. energy sector emissions fell 1.7 percent last year, primarily because of a 5 percent drop in the amount of coal-fired generation utilized, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Increased emissions from natural gas and other sources offset some of the reduction from coal.

Alabama’s other major electric utility, government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority, has reduced the use of coal in its mix of fuels by a greater percentage than Alabama Power. TVA CEO Bill Johnson told Reuters recently he expects its use of coal to drop from 60 percent of the mix 10 years ago to 15 percent by 2027. Carbon dioxide emissions have been cut in half since 2005 and will be reduced at least another 20 percent by 2030.

TVA’s Bellefonte nuclear plant sat unused for years before being bought in early 2017.

While nuclear power is used to generate electricity for both TVA and Alabama Power, don’t expect more of that carbon-free technology to come on line soon. Financial woes stemming from the cost of constructing new nuclear plants forced bankruptcy on Westinghouse Electric Co. in March, as it was building four new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, including two for Southern Co.

Without more nuclear generation expected soon, Alabama’s major clean energy boost could be from solar power. There, the state lags behind the rest of the Southeast. The sun shines here nearly 200 days a year, but the potential for adding solar power to the electric grid is unrealized.

In Alabama, Solar Power Faces Hurdles 

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, only 530 people are in solar jobs, mostly in the northern part of the state, where the Tennessee Valley Authority has friendlier policies on solar energy. About 10,000 state homes are powered by solar, accounting for only .02 percent of the state’s energy.

In contrast, solar is booming across most of the Southeast, and every state except Alabama and Tennessee has policies that encourage the use of residential and community solar. Solar installations in South Carolina’s low country region soared from 100 to 1,400 last year, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. Georgia has 4,000 solar jobs, Kentucky more than 1,000, and Mississippi almost 1,000.

Alabama’s Public Service Commission, responsible for regulating public utilities, has protected coal interests and has less-than-friendly policies toward alternative power sources, drawing praise and criticism. PSC members have called attempts to reduce power plant carbon emissions “an assault on our way of life” and an attempt to kill coal industry jobs.

Multiple recent reports from both business and environmentalist sources call out Alabama’s regulators for unfriendly attitudes toward clean energy needs. One report this year from the Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index, produced by a trade group of large retailers, proclaimed Alabama “is not open for business” due to onerous regulation of solar and other clean energy sources.

Christina Andreen, an attorney with Birmingham-based Southern Environmental Law Center, recently told Utility Dive, a trade publication, that “major policy hurdles” impede solar progress in Alabama. The outlet stated that Alabama has “no renewable energy standards and no net metering or other distributed-generation policies; its laws on third-party ownership of solar are vague; and its largest utility company imposes high fees and taxes on residential solar.”

EnergyAlabama’s Tait was quoted in the same article: “At the end of the day, Alabama has three things not going for it: there are no basic conditions that most states have, like operating procedures of how to handle solar; in most areas of the state there are onerous fees; and there are terrible buybacks.” Buybacks are what a utility company pays to customers who sell their excess solar energy back to the power grid.

Alabama Power buyback payments are between one-fourth and one third of what TVA customers get, according to Utility Dive. The company’s buyback is lower because conventional energy is cheaper in Alabama than other states, Sznajderman was quoted as saying.

In addition, Alabama Power charges solar customers a fixed fee of $5 per kilowatt per month, which Andreen called “a punitive policy, discouraging growth of rooftop solar in the state.” The fixed fee covers the utility’s cost of maintaining power for customers when the sun isn’t shining.