How green can a power company be? While there's a long road ahead to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the environmental track record of power generation in the United States, some companies are engaging in eco-initiatives that aim to make progress on those goals. When it comes to Atlanta-based Southern Company and environmental responsibility, efforts are underway both in its own plants and in the homes and businesses of its customers.

Southern Company is the Southeast's largest utility, providing power for 4.4 million customers in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi through four retail electric companies: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power. Its subsidiaries operate coal, gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. While coal provided 70 percent of the company's power in 2005, that number dropped to 57 percent by 2009 due to a variety of factors including decreased generation because of the economic downturn.

Fighting pollution and climate change

In recent years, Southern Company has begun to outline its environmental responsibility goals and progress in annual sustainability reports. How can such a large utility provider reduce the environmental impact of its operations? The company explains that it managed $500 million in research and development in collaboration with partners over the last decade to facilitate research and development and seek other ways in which it can improve.

According to its website, Southern Company is working on reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter, all of which affect air quality. Since 1990, emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide have been reduced 70 percent because of a large investment in scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction systems. These controls also have helped reduce mercury emissions, and the company’s Mercury Research Center is evaluating new technologies which could reduce those emissions further. Coal gasification, an advanced technology that will be utilized at commercial scale in a new power plant now under construction in Mississippi, will also further reduce these emissions as well as those of carbon dioxide.

Southern Company is currently researching how to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, which could theoretically aid in the fight against global warming. The company has also joined a voluntary U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program to reduce sulfur hexafluoride emissions, another greenhouse gas, at its 500 electricity transmission substations.

It takes a lot of water to produce electricity; Southern Company power plants withdraw an average of 6 billion gallons of water per day. Ninety-four percent of that water is returned to the river or lake from which it was sourced. In anticipation of new EPA standards for cooling water intake structures, Southern Company is researching and evaluating the effects that this returned water has on aquatic life.

Improving energy efficiency

Southern Company seeks to improve energy efficiency both in its internal operations and by educating its consumers. The company has received numerous Energy Star awards for its energy efficiency programs, which include EarthCents and the use of smart meters. EarthCents teaches consumers how to save money by reducing electricity demand at home and at work, while smart meters keep Southern Company vehicles off the road by reading meters and generating bills remotely. Other energy efficiency initiatives at Southern Company include the use of hybrid diesel-electric bucket trucks, promotion of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and construction of several LEED-certified buildings.

Developing clean energy solutions

In order to meet ever-increasing demand for electricity while maintaining environmental responsibility, Southern Company is branching out into clean energy production. This includes researching its options for increasing the use of biomass at some of its fossil fuel power plants. Subsidiary Southern Power has begun construction on a 100-megawatt biomass plant in Texas, which will be one of the largest in the United States.

Southern Company also teamed up with Ted Turner's Turner Renewable Energy to construct a massive solar facility in Cimarron, New Mexico. This project will consist of 500,000 solar panels, which can provide power for 9,000 homes. A new research project with Georgia Tech will evaluate options in wind power, and Southern Company is also looking in to producing electricity from landfill gas.

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Editor’s note: Southern Company is a Mother Nature Network sponsor.