Report: ‘Yes We Can’ Move Away From Coal In The Southeast

Our guest blogger is Kalen Pruss, intern with the Energy Opportunity team at the Center for American Progress, and a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in environmental studies and history.

Southern CompanyA new report finds that the Southeast will benefit from a national renewable electricity standard (RES), despite the complaints of one of region’s largest utilities that there’s not enough sun, wind, or other renewable energy to move away from coal. Southern Company, the giant parent company of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Gulf Power, has actively lobbied against an RES for years, using empty excuses to prevent renewable energy development:

Renewables like solar power and wind turbines often catch the public eye, but challenges with their consistent and widespread use in the Southeast persist.

In 2007, Southern Co. protested a 15% by 2020 RES bill championed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), claiming that that compliance would cost $4 billion to implement by 2030, because “the Southeast is short on wind and sun, unlike the Midwest and Southwest.” “We’re not opposed to renewable energy,” Southern’s CEO David Ratcliffe claimed, just a “sort of a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that would be very difficult for us to achieve with any economic sense.”

In fact, Southern Co. has spent only a measly $6 million on research and investment over the last five years, while annual profits grew in 2008 to a whopping $1.74 billion despite the economic downturn. A heavy user of coal-fired electricity, Southern Co. is the most polluting utility in the U.S. when it comes to carbon dioxide, and “runs six of the 50 dirtiest power plants in the country in terms of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury released.” Southern Co.’s 172 million tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions — the same as the entire nation of Venezuela — make it the only U.S. utility to rank in the top ten carbon-emitting utilities worldwide.

A new Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) study busts the myth that the Southeast can’t produce clean energy. “Yes We Can: Southern Solutions for a National Renewable Energy Standard” finds investment in renewables to be an economic boon to the region:

The Southeast has been portrayed as a region that will face significant cost and difficulty meeting a national RES due to scarce access to renewable energy resources. This assertion is simply inaccurate. The Southeast has sufficient renewable energy resources to comply with a strong RES. Developing our region’s renewable energy potential and meeting an RES will actually benefit the region.

With investment from companies like Southern Co. and federal funding for renewable energy and efficiency (such as the $6.145 billion in the recovery package), SACE found that the Southeast could produce 15% of its electricity from renewables by 2015, and 25% by 2025. The implementation of an RES would also spur job growth in a region now suffering 7 to 8% unemployment. For example, one 20 MW biomass power plant creates an average of 177 jobs and $11.07 million in additional economic activity. North Carolina’s implementation of an RES will create 41,000 net jobs, SACE estimates. Despite the protestations of coal-fired executives, the Southeast is ready and able to become a leader in the shift toward green energy and green jobs.

The Center for American Progress explains how a national renewable energy standard (RES) would help usher in a green energy economy across the nation.

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