Georgia Power’s parent pledges ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050

Atlanta-based utility giant Southern Company said Wednesday it will reduce its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050.

One way it hopes to get there: scrub carbon directly from the air using new technology. But it’s not clear how well that option might work.

The moves shift a goal set two years ago by Southern, the parent of Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light. At the time, it pledged to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, compared to 2007 levels, and to have “low to no” carbon emissions by 2050.

Southern Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning announced the new “net zero” goal during the company’s annual meeting Wednesday, which was held digitally due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Southern still could emit some carbon emissions from its system in 2050 but plans to wash out their effects by removing carbon in other ways.

One method would be by planting trees and other carbon-storing plants, Fanning said. Another might be to capture carbon before it is released by biomass plants. But the option he said he found particularly exciting was to pursue research to remove carbon directly from the air.

Others have pursued the concept, including Occidental Petroleum, which entered a deal to have such a plant built in the next couple of years.

Stephen Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, praised Southern’s new “zero” goal as significant for a powerful utility with a long history tied to fossil fuels and in a part of the nation that politically has been more resistant to acknowledging climate change. Still, he suggested that Southern put more focus on reaching its goals by using more renewables and through energy efficiency, rather than expensive and less-tested options.

Georgia Power has sharply reduced reliance on coal and boosted its use of solar power. But it relies most heavily on burning natural gas, which emits carbon, though at lower rates than coal-burning plants typically do.

Some investors and environmental groups have long pushed the company to address the threat of climate change and blamed it for fighting federal efforts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Fanning, Southern’s chief, called the goal of net zero “a no-brainer.”

“We produce these goals because they are good for customers and communities that we are privileged to serve,” he said. “Furthermore, these goals align with Southern Company’s risk-adjusted business strategy.”