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... what is Southern Co. going to do about it? 

Not too much too soon.

For half a century, the energy giant has powered four Southeastern states largely by burning coal. Meanwhile, challenge after environmental challenge has been tossed at Southern's coal plants. First, there was acid rain. Then, smog in metro Atlanta. Then, toxins, soot and, finally, mercury.

click to enlarge Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, near Macon, is the No.1 power plant in the country for carbon dioxide emissions. - COURTESY SOUTHERN CO.
  • Courtesy Southern Co.
  • Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, near Macon, is the No.1 power plant in the country for carbon dioxide emissions.

Sometimes, sticking with coal has required Southern to spend tens of millions of dollars on pollution controls, process improvements and capacity upgrades. Overall, the company says it's spent $6 billion on reducing pollutants.

Other times, Southern tapped into its deep political connections -- born from some of corporate America's heaviest campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures -- to convince Congress or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the White House to ease up on the regulations.

Through it all, the company has chosen to stay with its favored fossil. And why not? Coal's cheap and plentiful. The infrastructure for burning it is already there. And other options are either expensive or technically challenging -- or both.

Seventy-one percent of Southern Co.'s power generation now comes from coal. Georgia Power and three corporate siblings in the Southern family operate 21 coal-fired plants that generate 200 billion kilowatt hours a year. As corporate assets, the plants are valued in the billions of dollars.

Over the next decade, however, Southern's marriage to coal might face its biggest challenge. Carbon dioxide -- coal's top byproduct and the main greenhouse gas contributed by humans -- is still completely unregulated. If it heats the globe to the extent scientists say it will, electric utilities are likely finally to face pressure to shift away from fossil fuels.

Southern insists that's a "long-term" (read: not urgent) problem, well under control within the company's current strategy.

"It's not a burden, it's our business," Georgia Power spokeswoman Lolita Jackson says of coal. "We do what we have to do to reduce emissions and will continue to do so."

But many environmentalists and some energy experts say Southern's underplaying the dramatic impact global warming may have on its operations.

"Having that high a reliance on coal can put them at a competitive disadvantage very quickly if some kind of regulation is passed, which I think is likely to happen," says Jim Grode, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "I don't think they're doing enough to reduce the need for all that coal-fired capacity."

While the company takes credit for voluntarily "avoiding or reducing" carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100 million tons since 1994, its total carbon dioxide emissions have risen steeply over the same period -- from about 110 million tons to more than 148 million tons.

"You have to keep in mind that [power] generation has gone up," company spokeswoman Lynn Wallace points out. "In the Southeast, demand is higher than any other region in the country. As demand goes up, emissions go up. But we are addressing it."

Driven by shareholder pressure, Southern began in 2004 to issue annual reports on climate change's potential impact on the company's bottom line. The 2005 report stated that the company "has had a comprehensive program of engagement in activities related to the climate change issue and CO2 emissions for more than a decade."

But the report hardly makes it seem as if the company considers global warming a priority: "About 20 people -- engineers, chemists, economists and policy experts" of Southern's 25,000 employees are "involved" in a "comprehensive program of engagement activities" on climate change and carbon dioxide, the report says.

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There is one alternative to fossil fuel in which Southern has sunk a significant investment: nuclear power. The company already has three nuclear plants -- Farley, Hatch and Vogtle -- that generate 22.5 percent of the power in Georgia and Alabama. And last year, Georgia Power laid some of the regulatory groundwork for new units at Vogtle, near Waynesboro.

While the country is warming up to nuclear power after 30 years of awkward silence, atom-smashing still has its own baggage, from waste disposal to finances to terrorism. Environmentalists aren't about to let it succeed coal without a fight.

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Meanwhile, Southern has begun to tinker with other alternatives as well. In concert with an Orlando utility, the company's building a coal-gasification plant, which is supposed to burn more cleanly. It's planning to generate electricity at a south DeKalb County landfill by burning methane, which otherwise would waft into the upper atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. In some coal-fired plants, it's using switchgrass, wood chips and other "biomass" as supplements to lighten the load of carbon. It threw in on a major Georgia Tech study of wind power off the Georgia coast.

And three subsidiaries -- Georgia Power, Alabama Power and Mississippi Power -- have "green energy" programs for customers who want to spend extra to fund renewable energy initiatives.

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