Column: How Southern, Turner teamed up on energy

By Maria Saporta
Friday, January 29, 2010

The opportunity to make money has brought two friendly adversaries together.

David Ratcliffe, CEO of Southern Co., has teamed up with environmentalist Ted Turner to form a strategic alliance on the development of renewable energy projects in the United States.

“At his core, Ted is a businessman, so we have a common thread,” Ratcliffe said in a lengthy interview. “He wants to do a deal and he wants to make money. I want to do a deal and I want to make money. I find nothing offensive about that.”

The strategic alliance likely will lead to a joint venture or a Southern Co. subsidiary that initially will focus on the production of solar energy.

The company, First Solar Inc., will provide the technology. Turner will provide the land and his expertise. And Southern will bring its energy production and sales experience.

Ratcliffe said he expects to be able to announce the details of the business deal in the next couple of months.

“I wouldn’t be taking a first step if I didn’t think we would do a deal,” he said.

Ratcliffe remembered first meeting Turner back in the mid-1990s at a Climate Conference in Washington, D.C.

“His perception of Southern was as one of the bad guys and one of the big coal-burning facilities messing up things,” Ratcliffe said of Turner.

From his perspective, Ratcliffe saw Turner as “bright, enthusiastic and passionate, and not always as thoroughly informed as I would like for him to be.”

Over the years, Turner and Ratcliffe began talking and debating their various points of view on energy production. Taylor Glover, president of Turner Enterprises, helped arrange meetings for them to explore possible ventures in renewable energy.

In the meantime, Turner had invested in a solar panel company called DT Solar. That company was acquired by First Solar, which meant that Turner became an investor in one of the leading solar panel manufacturers in the world.

Turner also owns more than 2 million acres of land, most of it in the West and Southwest, which is more favorable for solar and wind energy production than land in Southern Co.’s territory of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and northern Florida.

“This gives us an opportunity to learn more about the technology in a real business deal, and obviously our desire is to make money,” Ratcliffe said. “Our traditional core business is as a regulated utility. I don’t see us becoming a renewable energy company.”

Meanwhile, Ratcliffe said he has enjoyed his association with Turner.

“It’s always exciting to be with Ted because he’s got so much energy and always going 100 miles an hour,” Ratcliffe said. “I have a great deal of respect for him, his energy and creativity. He puts his money where his mouth is.”

Chamber streamlining

The Metro Atlanta Chamber is reorganizing its committee and management structure to reflect recommendations made in the New Economy Task Force.

In a streamlining move, it will no longer have a separate committee focused on the Atlanta Public Schools. Instead, that committee has merged with the regional education committee to become the Education Policy Committee. It is being chaired by Helene Lollis, president of Pathbuilders.

Also, there now will be one vice president of education rather than two. Rene Pennington, who was vice president of the Atlanta Public Schools initiatives, has resigned to join her husband, former Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, in forming a consulting company. Joy Hawkins is now the sole vice president of education.

Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the move does not reflect any less of a dedication by the business group to support the reforms at the Atlanta Public Schools, and that the various initiatives will continue.

Other major committee changes: The chamber has created a new Bioscience Leadership Council that will be chaired by Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The Technology Leadership Council will be chaired by Paul Garcia, chairman and CEO of Global Payments Inc. Georgia Power Co.’s Kevin Fletcher will chair the Economic Development Committee; Chris Gaffney, president of Coca-Cola Supply, will chair the Supply Chain Leadership Council.

In the public policy arena, in addition to Lollis heading education, James R. Abrahamson, president of the Americas InterContinental Hotels Group Plc, will chair the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Committee; Post Properties Inc.’s Dave Stockert will continue to chair the Transportation Policy Committee; and John Yates, chair of the technology group of Morris Manning & Martin LLP, will chair the Metro Atlanta Chamber Political Action Committee (MACPAC).

Another new development is that Mary Moore, president and founder of the Cook’s Warehouse, will chair the Small Business Growth Council.

“As usual, the Metro Atlanta Chamber has put together a tremendous group of leaders to take us through 2010 and beyond,” said 2010 Chairman Bill Linginfelter, who is Regions Bank’s area president for Georgia and South Carolina. “We just don’t ever stop. We just keep the momentum going.”

Volunteer Council president

The Corporate Volunteer Council of Atlanta recently elected Katy Elder, senior manager of community affairs for the Home Depot Foundation, as its new president. She succeeds Jodie Huiet of AGL Resources Inc.

The volunteer council also has named Deloitte’s Brevard Fraser as its president-elect.

The council promotes volunteerism in the corporate sector and helps provide advice to companies interested in developing their own programs.

Lea Rolfes is the organization’s executive director.

She succeeds Linda Woodworth, who retired last year after 10 years with the organization.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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