By Maria Saporta
At Southern Co.’s annual meeting in Callaway Gardens Wednesday, a theme came through loud and clear — it’s time for one of the nation’s largest utilities to become more focused on renewable energies and reduce its emphasis on coal.
The overwhelming majority of shareholder questions and comments revolved around Southern’s commitment (or lack thereof) to increasing its portfolio of renewables — especially solar and wind.
Several shareholders also expressed concern about the increased risks of Southern’s investment in the “new” nuclear power industry after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that set off a nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
But one thing was obvious. Despite long standing differences of opinion between some shareholders and management, the tone at Southern Co.’s annual meeting was remarkably respectful on both sides.
In fact, before the meeting, Southern Co’s CEO Thomas Fanning had made a point to talk to most of the shareholders who had signed up to ask questions.
Also, Fanning told those attending the annual meeting that about a month ago, he had invited a group of “stakeholders” from the environmental community to talk about energy issues and policies and how he was looking forward to having a “very constructive relationship.”
The cordial nature of the meeting, however, did not prevent the asking of tough questions.
Todd Larson, corporate responsibility programs director for Green America, asked about the continuing health risks of coal, about the dangers of Southern Co.’s plans to build two new nuclear power facilities at Plant Vogtle, and about the need for the company to make a greater investment in energy efficiency.
(It was Green America that had released a report the day before the meeting calling the Southern Co. the dirtiest utility in the country and as “the United States’ most irresponsible utility.”)
“I appreciate the passion of your question,” said Fanning, before quickly adding that he rejected Larson’s “characterization” of the health hazards of coal. Fanning also repeatedly made the point that Southern has invested more in environmental controls and research and development than any other utility.
Several shareholders asked Fanning about Southern’s renewable portfolio and its commitment to wind and solar.
Fanning’s answers did show a nuanced shift in Southern’s attitude towards solar energy. Previously, Southern executives have said solar was not a viable option for the Southeast. But it did enter into a joint venture with Ted Turner and First Solar to become the second largest solar energy producer in the country.
“I’m not against wind, but I’m more bullish on solar,” Fanning said several times during the meeting. He said the solar plant in New Mexico was an opportunity for the company to learn more about the technology and its potential in the Southeast.
For Fanning, this meeting was particularly significant because it was his first since becoming CEO Dec. 1.
In an impromptu interview after the meeting, Fanning seemed pleased about the experience and the company’s need to do a better job telling the public about all Southern is doing in the clean energy arena.
“I have said internally that we need to tell our story better,” Fanning said. “There’s no company like the Southern Co. that has committed $20 billion in a clean energy portfolio.”
Then he said “renewables haven’t hit a price point or a reliability profile that makes sense for our customers in the Southeast. But we are embracing renewables.”
Still Fanning added that all forms of energy would be needed to meet demand, including greater energy efficiency. “You’ve got to have nuclear, and you’ve got to have coal,” he said.
Asked how he felt about his first annual meeting as CEO, Fanning was enthusiastic.
“I had a blast. I had a lot of fun,” said Fanning, who appreciated the tone of the meeting. “There was nobody out there that had ill feelings towards the company.”