Among the countless details swirling around the debate over national energy policy, there is one point on which most everyone agrees — there will be substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the long term.

My company, Southern Co., is on board with this. Along with other investor-owned utilities, we signed onto a climate change framework earlier this year supporting an 80 percent reduction in emissions by the year 2050.  But how are we going to accomplish that?

Above all else, we’ve got to develop technology. Cost-effective, reliable technology that works on a large scale. 

Any mandated cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) — a major greenhouse gas — from fossil fuel power generation must line up with the ability to achieve them. What may surprise you is that intensive research and development of carbon-reducing technologies has been under way for some time and significant progress has been made. Though we’re not quite there yet, momentum is building. Southern Co., on our own and in partnerships, has a hand in several key projects.

It’s the nature of research and development that this important work, for the most part, gets little public attention. It’s the type of work that rarely yields immediate results. But our progress is real and I believe our efforts will ultimately produce the solutions we seek.  

One initiative that is particularly exciting to us is a new partnership that includes Southern Co., the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other energy companies. Located in the small community of Wilsonville, Ala., is the DOE’s National Carbon Capture Center, which we manage and operate. The research here is designed to develop and test advanced technologies to capture carbon dioxide from coal-based power plants.

In a traditional coal-fired power plant, coal is combusted, or burned, to heat water to produce steam to spin the turbines that generate electricity. CO2 is released during this process and emitted into the atmosphere. With carbon capture technology, the CO2 would instead be captured, either before or after combustion, and then transported by pipeline to a suitable location for permanent underground storage or for an industrial use such as enhanced oil recovery.

Coal currently is the fuel source for about half of the nation’s electricity generation, and it is expected to be a major fuel source for years to come. So we have to find ways to make it work better, including reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, while also continuing to pursue other generation options as well as more energy efficiency.

Carbon capture is one of the most promising CO2-reduction technologies, and the National Carbon Capture Center will bring together scientists and technology developers from government, industry and universities. The National Carbon Capture Center will provide a setting where their work can be conducted under real world power plant conditions. We see the center serving as a crucial bridge from the laboratory to commercial demonstration.

DOE says it expects the National Carbon Capture Center, which will be fully operational next year, to be a focal point of national efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through technical innovation.

The center is one of many efforts under way by governments, businesses and individuals to ensure that people have the energy they need as well as a healthy planet. We’re involved in a number of other research projects, as we seek to do our part to develop effective technologies and also provide information and services to encourage more efficient use of energy.

With so much interest and activity focused on energy technology, this is a time of great discovery in the energy field. Stay tuned … there are some exciting things going on behind that humble light switch.

Chris HobsonChris Hobson is the chief environmental officer for the Southern Co. 

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In search for energy answers, we've got to develop technology
Southern Co. Chief Environmental Officer Chris Hobson describes his company's efforts to capture carbon dioxide from coal-based power plants.