By Frank Maisano
March 23, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
Energy has and will always be an important part of our lives. It is even more clear today as we watch our friends in the Northeast finally start to see some relief from a winter for the record books, hitting their economy as much as it has impacted their daily ability to function.
While we look for ways to balance our energy needs as consumers, we also need to make sure that balance is a part of how it is generated. The President called it an “all-of-the-above” strategy during his last campaign and it is based on balance, cost-effectiveness, reliability and innovation. This approach at developing our energy future has been a key talking point for Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning in recent years and it showed up again last week in his discussion with an Atlantic Council crowd, underscoring that a real “all-of-the-above” energy strategy already is well underway.
For years, our utilities like Southern Company have been attacked, sued, protested, vilified and scorned by activists in the environmental community for its unbending focus on the customer. But Southern’s innovative approach to both conventional and renewable fuels should be something that environmentalists, clean energy advocates, customers and investors alike should praise and pursue.
Our utilities, both public and private, have famously led on coal and gas issues for years. While the market price of gas has made the balance lean more toward gas and away from coal, they still have a strong balance. Already, many vintage coal-fired plants have been re-tooled into larger-capacity power plants that use natural gas. The conversions have replaced a number of old power plants that are now providing reliable power for customers while reducing emissions as much as 50 percent.
Not to be outdone, the coal plants of past no longer really exist with the largest and newest coal plants sporting some of the best pollution control upgrades in the industry. In fact, Southern pioneered scrubber technology for power plants in the early 1990s with technologies that are being used at power plants throughout the country today.
Southern is also ground zero for the first real expansion of nuclear power in 30 years at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle. The reactors will be the U.S. nuclear industry’s reference for new nuclear power technology and will be among the first new plants, creating thousands of jobs and producing clean, zero-emissions power.
The company has also established more technology street cred with its efforts to build America’s most advanced carbon capture and storage, coal-gasification power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.
While both Vogtle and Kemper have faced the challenges that any innovative, new technology will face, both are on track to be completed soon. And both technologies will have international application, changing the way energy is produced internationally. Already, Southern has a partnership with China’s Shenhua Group to collaborate in the further research, development and deployment of clean coal technologies in the United States, China, and around the world. Nearly every nation that supports the use of nuclear power is watching the advances at Vogtle with intrigue.
Southern has not forgotten about renewable energy either. Just last month, the company acquired two more solar projects in Georgia, and now owns more than 670 MW of renewable energy generating capacity that is either already in operation or under development. The company owns seven solar projects in partnership with Turner Renewable Energy, one solar project in partnership with First Solar and has recently announced plans to develop a 131-MW solar facility in Taylor County, Georgia, which is expected to be completed in 2016.
And even though wind in the Southeast remains a challenge, power providers in Southern’s territory have purchased some 200 megawatts of wind energy being developed in Oklahoma and the company continues to work with institutions like Georgia Tech University to evaluate, test and develop offshore wind opportunities along the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
Biomass, or wood waste, is an abundant, renewable natural resource as well as part of a balanced energy program. Many of Southern’s utilities in the Southeast are leaders in developing research and technology required to convert power plants to biomass. Southern Power also owns one of the nation’s largest wood biomass power plants in Nacogdoches, Texas, generating 100MW for Austin, TX and is fueled with forest residue from the surrounding areas, wood processing residues and clean municipal wood waste.
Finally, they are bringing this agenda all together in a new robust and proprietary research and development operation that, in partnership with universities and academic centers, will promote and incubate innovation to entrepreneurship to develop new energy systems and models for the future. This new energy innovation center will aim to incubate ideas, many which emanate from Southern employees who participate in regular company innovation competitions.
Southern Company is doing it all. They’ve committed $20 billion to making all these innovations a reality because they are the international answer to the challenges of climate change. In the process, the efforts can create millions of jobs. The Southern projects alone are creating about 250,000 jobs. Even before they finish the job, this “all-of-the-above” approach is the example for environmental stewardship and reliable energy use around the world well into our future.
Frank Maisano is a Founding Partner at Bracewell Giuliani’s Policy Resolution Group