ATLANTA — Atlanta-based Southern Co. is taking the next step toward ending its reliance on fossil fuels as a source of electrical generation.
Two years after Georgia Power’s parent company committed to a goal of “low- to no-carbon” by 2050, Southern Chairman, President and CEO Tom Fanning announced Wednesday the utility giant’s new goal is to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by that target year.
During Southern’s annual shareholders meeting, Fanning also reaffirmed the company’s intermediate goal of a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 levels by 2030.
Driven primarily by low natural gas prices and tougher government regulations on carbon, Southern’s carbon emissions have steadily decreased over the past decade as the company began retiring some of its coal-burning power plants. During the first quarter of this year, the portion of the utility’s energy mix derived from coal fell to just 13%, down from 22% last year.
As a result, the company now expects to achieve the 50% reduction goal well in advance of 2030, possibly as early as 2025.
“I continue to be confident that we are prepared and well-positioned to meet the needs of our customers, employees, communities and investors well into the future and will succeed in the transition to a net-zero carbon future,” Fanning said. “As always, we are committed to providing clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to the customers we are privileged to serve.”
Fanning said reaching the net-zero goal will involve continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing Southern’s commitment to energy efficiency.
“The Southern Company has always been committed to being a good steward in all of our communities,” said Cassandra Wheeler, regional director for Georgia Power in Northwest Georgia. “We have been very aggressive in trying to meet or exceed our emissions targets.”
Southern also plans to incorporate negative carbon solutions, including technology-based approaches such as direct air capture of carbon as well as natural methods like planting trees in areas that lack forests, he said.
Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Southern’s new goal of net-zero carbon emissions is an improvement over its previous target of low- to no-carbon because it’s more specific.
“Net zero fits more cleanly within the international framework, wherein it’s commonly said that in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Ebersbach said. “So on balance, while many details remain unanswered about how they plan to get to net zero, this is a good thing.”
But Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Southern’s plan isn’t aggressive enough considering the pace of global climate change.
“We don’t have three decades to wait,” he said. “The urgency of the moment requires more than tree planning and long-term R&D plans.”
Fanning said Southern Co. will update its progress in a report to be issued later this year.