Southern Company's approach to the environment rests on two key initiatives: increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions that pollute the air.
Most of the material for this article came directly from Southern Company's own environmental reports, which can be found on the Atlanta-based company's website.
The company says it aims to increase not only efficiency in its plants and offices but also in customers' homes and businesses. Southern Company has launched a program called EarthCents that includes home energy audits, weatherization for low-income customers and variable pricing. Commercial customers will benefit from the program’s real time pricing and interruptible load programs.
As part of the program, the company has committed to increasing its investment in energy efficiency programs to more than $1 billion by 2020.
Southern Company's subsidiaries participate in the ENERGY STAR program, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that promotes energy efficient products and practices.
Georgia Power, in particular, has been recognized for promoting the use of fluorescent light bulbs to its customers. It donated more than 330,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs in the past three years and has solicited pledges from thousands of its customers to replace at least one incandescent bulb in their homes with a CFL bulb.
Southern Company also is promoting awareness of geothermal heat pumps, which have the potential to use between 25 percent and 40 percent less energy than other heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Smart meters also play a role in increasing efficiency. The company has launched a program to install more than four million smart meters, which monitor electricity use and generate bills without sending workers to customers’ homes and businesses. That reduces usage of the company's fleet of cars, which translates into less greenhouse gas emissions.
The meters also will help customers use energy more efficiently by providing access to data, rate and pricing options that would allow them to better manage electricity usage during peak demand and consumption times.
The company is cutting down on car usage in other ways, as well. For example, Southern Company offers employees carpooling and other commuting options. Some of its divisions no longer permit company vehicles to idle while on official business. And Southern Company is adding alternative fuel vehicles to the company fleet.
The company’s approach to reducing emissions at its plants is multi-faceted.
First and foremost, Southern Company has begun to diversify the ways it generates power. While coal supplied 68 percent of the company's generation in 2008, other forms of energy are gaining. The company derived 15 percent of its generation needs from nuclear power and 16 percent from natural gas in 2008. The company also relies to a small degree on hydroelectric power.
New natural gas-fired combined-cycle plants produce about half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal. Nuclear power, which provides about 20 percent of the electricity used in the U.S., is the only large-scale base load generation source that does not produce any carbon dioxide emissions.
The company generates nuclear power at three plants: Vogtle and Hatch in Georgia, and Farley in Alabama. In 2009, the company was issued an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reserve the option to add two more units at Plant Vogtle. Southern Company has selected a contracting firm to construct the units and has already received approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission to build them.
Southern Company is also investing in emerging generation technologies. It plans to convert a coal generation unit in Georgia to wood biomass, which consists largely of wood residue and waste such as sawdust that are produced during furniture, paper and lumber manufacturing.
The company has focused efforts on developing wood biomass as an alternate source of power because the electricity produced is considered "carbon neutral." That’s because the carbon produced during generation is equal to what was absorbed while the biomass was growing.
The conversion project, which would take place at Plant Mitchell near Albany, Ga., would be one of the largest wood biomass plants in the U.S.
In addition to its efforts to diversify energy sources, Southern Company also is dedicated to making coal a cleaner fuel. The DOE chose Southern Company to operate the National Carbon Capture Center, which will use technological innovation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal powered plants.
The NCCC, which will be the first national research center dedicated to carbon capture, will be able to capture and then analyze carbon dioxide emissions on a large scale. That will provide data that commercial power plants can use to burn coal in a cleaner way.
For more information on Southern Company and the environment, check out the Planet Power section of the company’s website.
Editor's note: Southern Company is a sponsor of Mother Nature Network.