Southern Co. faces friendly critics at annual meeting

It was a friendly and polite crowd that attended the Southern Co.’s annual meeting today in Callaway Gardens.

Even shareholders that had submitted proposals opposed by the company had kind words for Southern’s executives and their willingness to discuss sensitive issues of carbon emmissions, coal plants and climate change.

“We have been discussing these issues with the company for a long time, and we want to acknowledge tremendous progress over the years,” Sister Barbara Aires told CEO David Ratcliffe.

Sister Aires spoke on behalf of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth of New Jersey and other religious groups that had introduced a shareholder proposal for the company to prepare an environmental report that would outline the actions needed to reduce total CO2 emmissions by September.

While commending the company for having a 2050 target date to reduce current carbon emmissions by 80 percent, Sister Aires said she was concerned that the Southern Co.’s “short and intermediate” plans to reduce emmissions are inadequate.

“I’m helping the company here,” she said. “Don’t think shareholders that we are enemies here.”

Mark Woodall, a Southern Co. shareholder from Woodland, Ga. who is chairman of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, asked about the increased risk shareholders might have as the federal government adopts tighter carbon regulations.

“Why are we not doing more to mitigate our carbon risk and why are you building a coal plant in Mississippi,” Woodall asked Ratcliffe.

After the shareholders’ proposals were defeated, Ratcliffe address shareholders by giving favorable financial and operational reports. The company also will increase its dividends to shareholders this next quarter. “It will be the 246th consecutive quarter, 61 years, that we have paid dividends,” Ratcliffe said.

But Ratcliffe devoted much of his talk to shareholders to talk about energy efficiency, conservation, alternative energy generation such as biomass, wind, solar and hydro-electric power.

Ratcliffe was particularly pleased to say that the company is moving forward with two new nuclear plants at the existing Plant Vogtle near Augusta. And he said the company is working cutting-edge technology to produce clean coal. Southern’s facility in Alabama is working in partnership with the Department of Energy ito research ways to capture carbon emmissions.

He also said the new coal plant in Mississippi was using coal gasification technology, which the company thinks is “ready for commercial demonstration.” The goal is for the plant to capture 50 to 60 percent of the CO2 emmissions, the equivalent of the emmissions of a natural gas plant.

“No single one of these technologies will solve all of our needs,” Ratcliffe said. “We need a portfolio.”

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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