Southern Company (NYSE: SO) has switched on the largest US biomass plant, adding to its modest renewable energy portfolio.
The 100 megawatt Nacogdoches Generating Facility is supplying electricity to Austin Energy in Texas under a 20-year power purchase agreement.
It is owned and operated by Southern Company subsidiary Southern Power, which acquired the project from American Renewables in October 2009.
Sited on 165 acres in northeast Texas, the $500 million plant is powered by non-saleable wood waste from saw mills and and other wood mills, forest waste, pre-commercial thinnings of cultivated trees and diseased and other non-commercial tree species. It may also use urban wood waste, tree limbs and branches produced by storms and other non-commercial logging-derived biomass.
Southern says the facility uses the newest technology available, including a bubbling fluidized-bed boiler that provides the flexibility to use a wide range of biomass fuels and keep emissions low.
"Today we recognize Southern Company's on-time, on-budget completion of the nation's largest biomass-fueled power plant," says Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, which has been criticized over the years for its slow adoption of renewable energy and heavy reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants. "This is an important milestone for the community, the city of Austin and Southern Company, as the plant provides jobs and economic impact for Nacogdoches County and further diversifies the fuel portfolios of Austin Energy and Southern Company to strengthen our nation's energy independence."
Southern Co., with more than 4.4 million customers and 43,000 MWs of generating capacity, owns a 30 MW solar PV plant with Ted Turner in New Mexico - the partnership just made a second solar acquisition. A sudsidiary, Alabama Power, buys wind energy from a farm in Oklahoma, and another unit, Georgia Power, is working on its first utility-scale project. That same division is also involved in a controversial new nuclear construction project in Georgia that has already run into delays and more than $400 million in cost overruns.
But this small renewable energy portfolio doesn't change its ranking as the "most irresponsible utility in the US." Green America gives it a "F" for reliance on coal; pollution; reliance on and expansion of nuclear power; and lobbying expenditures. Newsweek rated the company as 494 out of 500 companies in its green ranking.
In June, the US Court of Appeals upheld upheld EPA's "endangerment" determination, its clean car standards, and its pollution permit requirements for big new industrial facilities. Southern Company was a leading petitioner in the case. It has reportedly spent over $17.5 million in the past two years lobbying Congress to reject or delay rules and compliance schedules.