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.”