The red-and-white flue stacks of the James M. Barry Electric Generating Station tower over the Mobile River, belching steam into the Alabama sky. The sprawling complex of coal and natural gas plants already spews more than 7.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent every year. Now it’s about to get even bigger, with a seventh unit estimated to cost $635 million by the time it starts service in 2023. The new gas plant, and others like it, has a 40-year lifespan. That means it will still be there in 2035, the year that President Joe Biden has promised a zero-emission electricity sector, and in 2050, the deadline set by its owner, Southern Co., to reach carbon neutrality. It could even burn past 2060, more than a century after the first coal facility opened on the site — making the complex a testament to the endurance of fossil fuels.
The decision by one of the biggest U.S. power companies to develop new fossil fuel assets is hard to square with a low-carbon future. But it’s not unusual. At least eight large utilities in the U.S. are building new gas plants right now, and another five are thinking about doing the same. That lays bare an uncomfortable truth about the sector’s commitment to fighting climate change: All those carbon-neutral pledges don’t necessarily mean quitting fossil fuels.
“It seems like false advertising or greenwashing,” said Drew Shindell, a professor at Duke University who studies climate change. “We can’t be building gas infrastructure in the 2020s and 2030s. We need to be closing it down.”
If all of the plants under consideration moved forward, they would release nearly 35 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, according to calculations by BloombergNEF. 1 That’s about the same as the annual tailpipe emissions of every car in Florida.
Power companies explain their commitment to gas by arguing that it’s both necessary for electric reliability and an important bridge to transition from coal to cleaner energy sources. California learned that the hard way. Over the past five years, the state retired enough gas capacity to power 6.8 million homes, and had to resort to rolling blackouts last summer when a heatwave taxed the electric grid just as solar waned at sunset.
“Cloud cover comes and goes,” said Katharine Bond, vice president of public policy and state affairs at Dominion Energy Inc. “The winds slows. We’ve got to have something that we can ratchet up.” Dominion, which has a 2050 net-zero pledge and is required by Virginia to be 100% carbon free by 2045, is also considering building a new natural gas-fired plant.
To offset pollution from the new facilities, Southern, Dominion and others say they plan to invest, eventually, in technology to capture and dispose of their emissions, or rework those facilities to burn cleaner fuels such as biogas or hydrogen made from renewable sources. But neither of those strategies has been implemented at scale, and both remain uneconomic at today’s prices. Notably, almost none of the companies have laid out a timeline or budget for upgrading or transitioning their gas plants. Two of them, DTE Energy Co. and Xcel Energy Inc., acknowledge that their carbon goals rely on technology that doesn’t currently exist. 2
Southern’s new Barry plant “will support us getting to 2050” because it’s designed for both carbon capture and mixing in hydrogen, said Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning. Right now, those technologies don’t make sense financially but “when it’s in the money, we’ll absolutely add that in.”