An aerial image of Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond operating on a crisp January morning several years ago.

ATLANTA — The rate at which Atlanta-based Southern Co. and other utilities in the Southeast reduce carbon emissions will flatten during the coming decade, preventing them from reaching long-term zero-carbon goals.

That’s the conclusion of a new study released by the Southern Allliance for Clean Energy.

While Southern Co. is on track to meet its interim goal of reducing carbon emissions 50% from 2007 levels by 2030, it is not close to being on pace to achieving a longer-term goal of net-zero carbon by 2050, the study reported.

Southern and other utilities were able to make significant strides reducing reliance on coal for electrical generation during the last decade mostly by retiring coal-burning plants and replacing them with natural gas.

Keeping up that rate of progress going forward will require retiring remaining coal plants at a steady pace and replacing gas with clean energy sources like wind, solar, battery storage and energy efficiency, according to the SACE report. But that’s not expected to happen, said Heather Pohnan, SACE’s energy policy manager.

“While decarbonization by mid-century could be possible if utilities reduce emissions at the rate observed over the past decade, that is not what current utility plans show, she said. “Instead, plans show that decarbonization will slow now that the lowest-hanging fruit has been picked.”

Based on the average annual reduction in carbon emissions of 3.8% Southern Co. realized during the last decade, the utility would reach its goal of net-zero carbon by 2056, just a few years later than originally anticipated.

But with carbon emissions expected to decline by only 1.8% annually on average during the current decade, the net-zero carbon goal set for 2050 would not be attained until 2086, according to the SACE study.

That conflicts with a Biden administration proposal that the nation’s electric sector reach 80% clean energy by 2030 and 100% by 2035.

“This is an important policy initiative that will require Southeast utilities to move beyond talk and into more serious actions,” SACE Executive Director Stephen Smith said.

“We anticipate regional utilities will need to increase investments in clean energy resources and get their resource plans on track to achieve the deep decarbonization required to meet this policy goal and limit the impacts from dangerous climate disruption.”

The study of Southeastern utility systems analyzed power generation and emissions from Southern Co., Duke Energy, NextEra and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Georgia Power Co. is a subsidiary of Southern Co.

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