The Southern Co. annual meeting Wednesday marked a historic transition as Chris Womack became the utility company’s CEO, succeeding Tom Fanning, who will continue to serve as its executive chairman.
“Having grown up in southern Alabama in the 1960s and to stand where I am today is a very humbling experience,” said Womack, a subtle reference to him becoming the first African American to serve as CEO of the powerful holding company of several of the South’s leading utilities, including Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Mississippi Power and Southern Co. Gas.
The annual meeting on May 24 began at 10 a.m. at Callaway Gardens with ample security, even though protests were scheduled in Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon.
The in-person annual meeting, however, was filled with tough questions from shareholders. Instead of lasting 2 hours and 45 minutes as the 2022 annual meeting did, Southern Co.’s goal was to keep the event to 2 hours, which it almost accomplished.
The meeting took on the feeling of a play with two leading men – Fanning and Womack – demonstrating their different leadership styles while revealing a tremendous level of respect and ease with each other.
“What’s your old-man advice?” asked Womack, 65.
Fanning, 66, responded by saying he’d try to keep his answer short.
“Really?” Womack asked sarcastically.
Womack is a man of few words who is all business, while Fanning clearly enjoys interacting with friends and foes alike.
At one point Fanning complimented a hat worn by shareholder Henry Slack, which stated: “Make Earth Cool Again.”
And yet, the styles of Fanning and Womack were remarkably similar in one important way – in the way they handled tough questions.
Neil Sardana, a Sierra Club “beyond coal” organizer, gave a highly critical analysis of Fanning’s legacy, saying he had put on “quite a show for many years” by painting a rosy picture of the company’s transition away from coal. Sardana said the Southern Co. still had an overreliance on fossil fuels while resisting a move to clean fuels, such as solar.
“Let me thank you very much for your commentary and your question,” Womack said when addressing Sardana before disputing some of his facts.
Then Fanning chimed in, also thanking Sardana.
“I get everything you’re saying from your perspective,” Fanning said. “I disagree with it. But your perspective is as valuable as mine, I suppose.”
Fanning then went on to state that during his tenure, Southern Co. has gone from having 70 percent of its energy be generated from coal to only 14 percent. The company has set a net zero goal of carbon emissions by 2050, and Womack said it was possible they could meet that goal ahead of schedule.
It was apparent at Wednesday’s meeting that Womack would continue Fanning’s approach of listening to Southern Co.’s critics by keeping open communications with environmentalists.
Much of the shareholder meeting revolved around the use of natural gas, especially the carbon emissions resulting from upstream and downstream extraction of the gas, especially from fracking. The industry describes the total emissions as Scope 3.
A shareholder asked why other utility companies were willing to set goals on Scope 3 emissions, but Southern was not.
“Getting a handle on Scope 3 emissions is very difficult. It’s almost impossible,” said Womack, who added that it isn’t appropriate to set targets when they don’t have a way to measure those emissions. “We are not there yet.”
Fanning said he couldn’t agree more, saying their competitors “don’t know how to measure this stuff either.” In fact, they had reached out to Southern to help them measure Scope 3 emissions.
“We are not into rhetoric. We are into action,” Fanning said. “I can assure you we get it… We are working on it.”
They also said they were committed to carbon capture, and Fanning said he was pleased the federal Inflation Reduction Act was “technology agnostic” on reducing carbon emissions.
Another area of criticism revolved around the coal ash pond at Alabama’s Plant Barry.
A shareholder who said he was a retired lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, said Plant Barry’s coal ash pond dates back to 1965 and now has 21 million tons of toxic coal ash in an unlined pit within the floodplain of the Mobile River.
By comparison, Georgia Power has 29 ash ponds, and 19 of those have removed the ashes and put them in a secure landfill.
“Why are you letting Georgia Power do the correct thing but not Alabama Power?” the shareholder asked.
To that, Womack, the former CEO of Georgia Power, responded: “We hear you. We understand the importance of the Mobile Bay.”
By the way, Alabama Power got a leader in January – Jeff Peoples, who succeeded Mark Crosswhite, who retired after eight years as the head of the company.
One of the funnier moments during the meeting was when Fanning was praising Womack.
“I moved his office right next to mine,” Fanning said.
“He enjoyed it,” Womack said laughing – implying he didn’t feel the same way.
Undaunted, Fanning continued praising Womack, saying: “I learned so much from him.”
By the way, Fanning’s old-man advice to Womack was to embrace people with new ideas.
“People get addicted to what they’ve done in the past because they were successful,” Fanning said. “Try to celebrate people in the company who were revolutionaries.”
The expansion of Plant Vogtle also was another hot-button topic. Shareholder Robert Searfoss admitted that “last year I was outside with a sign,” and he wondered how much customers would have to pay for the “mistakes” the company had made by investing in the two new nuclear power plants.
Again, Womack and Fanning disagreed with the “characterization of mistakes” and added that customers would not be shouldering the total cost of the project. Several times, the two executives said Vogtle Unit 3 would be online by the end of June and that Unit 4 would be online by the end of the year or by early 2024.
The meeting ended with Fanning saying: “Chris will do a fabulous job.”
Juanita Baranco agreed.
Baranco served 16 years on Southern Co.’s board after nine years on Georgia Power’s board and rotated off last year. She recognized the significance of the transition in leadership.
“We’ve always had some level of diversity. Has it increased? Absolutely,” said Baranco, who was glad to have attended the meeting in person to see Womack become CEO. “Yes. Chris is an African American, but the reality is that the board saw and understood his value. Chris Womack earned this position.”
Baranco also heralded Kim Greene, who recently became the first woman to be CEO of the Georgia Power Co., Southern’s largest utility. “Kim is so special. She’s smart. She’s been with the company for a long time. She has been able to think through problems,” Baranco said. “Women have a tendency of tackling issues that guys might stay away from. She’s going to be great.”