Southern Co. could face competition from rooftop solar panels.

A power company innovating? Shocking!

Maybe you’ve dropped your home phone line and your cable TV. But are you ready to cut your electric connection to the big local utility?

(I’m writing figuratively. Don’t climb a pole and use your hedge trimmer on a live line. I suspect it would fry you, knock out neighborhood power and ruin lots of frozen dinners.)

Big changes are roiling the industry that supplies us with electricity. One is the threat that more of us will end up generating our own electricity, maybe from rooftop solar panels. Which puts pressure on utilities to get all innovative. I’m not so sure they are up for the challenge.

Rival solar power companies are already signing up new customers on Georgia Power’s turf.

Such a step toward consumer free will should scare the electrons out of our electric giant.

But when I recently met with Tom Fanning, the top boss at Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, he seemed unworried even as he said his company has no choice but to change.

Fanning says he doesn’t expect home generation to become really big for perhaps 20 to 35 years. And just in case it comes sooner — ‘cause he says American business always underestimates the speed and depth of change — he’s already working to ensure Southern can get in on new energy action, whatever it is.

Fanning, who once aspired to play football at West Point but ended up learning finance and Russian at Georgia Tech, wants to take his company on the offensive. He wants to find ways for you to connect more things to a power cord (cars are a nice start) and buy more electricity from him, even as you use that power more efficiently. He’d like to juice up corporate profits at the same time.

To help get there, he told me, Southern is embarking on an “innovation intervention.” This at a company, which — how do I say this not very delicately? – often has seemed a bit lumbering.

And there’s the rub: Southern Company is changing!

Well, sort of.

It has teamed up with cool, industry-busting electric car maker Tesla to study battery storage. It’s creating an innovation center – which certainly sounds innovative — near Georgia Tech. It launched an internal competition for employees to come up with new ideas that will help the company thrive, not just survive. It is, as one company executive put it during a meeting I attended, trying to avoid becoming the corporate equivalent of Detroit.

Just talk?

But is all this talk of change just packaging and fancy talk?

Can a big monopoly with virtually guaranteed profits, government market protections, a mantra that revolves around “reliability” and a bureaucracy built on lifer employees get out of its own way long enough to break molds?

Having spent a career in the newspaper industry, I’ve seen what it’s like to wait too long to make dramatic changes. It’s hard to pivot when you’ve got a newspaper to put out every day or a electricity to shove out the wire. Among other things it takes stark, straight-forward sharing with employees.

So I wondered whether Fanning’s call for dramatic change has really been heard by the company’s 26,000 employees.

He told me the theme for the company’s centennial helped telegraph the change in a “non-threatening” way: “Honor the past. Build for the future.”


Utilities don’t really have a choice any more about whether or not to be innovative.

Change is being forced by everything from government limits on coal to the push to invent better batteries to store electricity for cloudy days and the growing affordability of home rooftop solar panels. Those last two might make it possible for lots of Georgian’s to operate their own mini Georgia Power. Yeah, that would play havoc with Georgia Power’s current model of building more big, centralized power plants.

Nuclear plants are supposed to last maybe 60 years, with their real cost benefits coming decades in. How many more reactors should we build if there might be fewer people on the grid to use their power?

Much of the change Southern is already making stems from an outside push.

Tightening federal pollution limits led it to close dirty, aging coal plants. The company sharply increased its solar power holdings under pressure from state regulators. (It also helped that price of solar equipment plummeted.)

A few years ago when Georgia Power last decided to make a big bet on the future, it choose the remarkably innovative step of spending billions of dollars on … nuclear power.

Just to be clear, that’s nuclear as in the stuff that was popular to build when bell-bottom jeans were groovy.

No emissions, nice profit

Nuclear doesn’t have any yucky emissions tied to climate change. So that’s nice. Another nice thing for Georgia Power’s expansion at Plant Vogtle: It’s a massive, expensive construction project, which is how the company builds its profit.

The Vogtle work south of Augusta is more than three years behind schedule. And the company’s share of costs have ballooned far beyond original projections.

Yet Fanning has told me repeatedly that the project has long term benefits and is basically awesome for Georgia. This reminds me of how New York University (and Georgia Southern) researchers recently found that parents of obese kids overwhelmingly insist that their hefty offspring are about the right weight.

Southern’s nuclear challenges pale in comparison to a whole different kind of plant it has been spending billions on in Mississippi. That’s where the company really did try something I’m told was innovative: trying to come up with a low-pollution electric facility that will turn coal into gas. The plant is fantastically over budget. But state regulators there had the foresight to put a cost cap in place to hopefully limit the pain for consumers.

It’s worthy lesson to keep in mind.

The kissing cousin of innovation is risk. And if Georgia Power takes on more risk as it is being urged to, consumers may end up footing the bulk of the bill unless regulators force rock-solid consumer protections upfront.

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