Southern Co. inching forward on many climate solutions – without admitting there’s a problem
By Guest Columnist COLLEEN KIERNAN, director of the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter
It’s the fourth Wednesday in May. That means I’m on my way to the 2015 Annual Southern Company Stockholders Meeting in Callaway Gardens.
A lot of corporations annual shareholder meetings are beyond dull, often lasting less than 10 minutes. Other times, when shareholder activists engage, they become a venue for street theater and other lively actions, lasting late into the evening.
Southern Co.’s annual meeting falls somewhere in the middle.
This year there were two shareholder resolutions, and both were focused on Southern Co.’s business practices related to climate change and climate-change drivers, which pose a real risk to current investors.
The first one was filed by the New York Comptroller on “Proxy Access” and would allow for shareholders owning at least 3 percent for three years to nominate candidates for the board of directors.
Many companies have adopted this policy, including Bank of America, General Electric, Prudential Company and Staples. Concern about about climate change in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the lack of independence of directors with regard to managing climate risks drove the New York Comptroller to file at Southern Co.
Lack of independence is a real concern. In February, Greenpeace released documents that showed Southern Co. was the major funder ($469,500 since 2006) of leading climate denial scientist Willie Soon. The company quickly cut ties with Soon, but according to the New York Comptroller’s office, the events underscored that “the directors would rather deny these risks rather than understand and manage them,” as the representative from the Comptroller said when presenting the resolution. The resolution garnered 46 percent – just shy of a majority.
The second resolution was filed by the Sisters of Charity and other faith-based investors, socially responsible investor groups as well as Sierra Club members.
It would have the company set absolute, quantitative time-bound goals for reducing total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by November of this year. This year, the GHG resolution got about 22 percent of the preliminary vote, about the same as a resolution in 2003.
As part of the company’s response to this year’s resolution, they note that their 2014 GHG emissions are almost 20 perent below their 2005 levels. So, even if a resolution doesn’t pass, it does force the company to pay attention.
Other utilities have established such goals, including AEP, Exelon, Duke, Con Edison, NextEra Energy, PSEG, and Idaho Power. But as CEO Tom Fanning says, “It’s not our role to engage in the climate debate.” However, statements like that reinforce the notion that there is a debate. With all the progress on renewables and energy efficiency over the last few years, Southern Co. could become an industry leader by acknowledging the risk that climate change poses and the need to mitigate that risk.
While the company has not acknowledged the overarching problem of climate change, they have shown a willingness to embrace many of its solutions.
For example, during the Q&A portion of the annual meeting, while announcing Georgia Power’s rooftop solar program, expected to launch July 1st, and detailing the future of energy efficiency in homes, Fanning said, “If our customers want to buy it, I want to sell it to them.”
However, the next day I found myself at the Georgia Public Service Commission, urging commissioners to order the company to go forward now with more wind contracts.
As part of the 250 MW (megawatt) wind deal with the Blue Canyon project in Oklahoma approved a year ago (which gives Georgia ratepayers electricity well below avoided cost) the Public Service Commission had the company go out to market and see what other deals were out there.
In February, Georgia Power published the results: over 6,500 MW of projects – some of which cost one-third what electricity costs on under the business as usual case in Georgia. We showed that Georgia Power’s customers – and people from all corners of the state – want wind generation.
But even though their customers want more cheap wind, Georgia Power is the one party steadfastly opposed moving forward now, saying that the best time to figure out the “appropriate” energy mix was during the Integrated Resource Plan, which won’t be voted on until next July. The deals may well be snatched up by then, especially as utilities begin to look for a lot more carbon-free generation as they put together compliance plans for the forthcoming Clean Power Plan, set to be finalized in August.
“If it makes sense, we’ll do it” is a common Fanning refrain, but this Southern Co. statement isn’t bearing true within its operating companies.
In this case, customers will have to let Georgia Power and the Public Service Commission know that we want to buy more cheap, clean wind so they will sell it to us.