After almost 35 years of environmental initiatives that began with offering natural gas as a clean transportation fuel and most recently resulted in reducing infrastructure methane emissions intensity down to the last percentage point, Southern Company Gas is expanding efforts even further to drive environmental responsibility across the entire natural gas supply chain.
Earlier this year, the company launched two new departments, Sustainability & Innovation and Renewable Natural Gas, and created three new environmentally-focused positions. Joanne Mello, director of Sustainability and Energy Policy, has been tasked with helping to bring Southern Company Gas Chairman, President and CEO Kim Greene’s vision for a clean future to fruition, aligning the sustainability efforts conducted across the business to support Southern Company’s recently announced goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Here, Mello explains Southern Company Gas’ progress towards addressing the challenges caused by climate change and its plans to further support the clean energy future.
Q) Southern Company Gas has a long history of environmental stewardship, and some of the work your department will oversee has been underway for years. Why did Greene decide to form this new group?
Mello: Prior to my current role, I served as chief of staff to our CEO, where I had the opportunity to connect with people working across our entire family of companies. What I saw was Kim’s leadership energizing employees to find innovative new ways to address our businesses’ most pressing challenges. We are exploring new partnerships and new technologies that will not only reduce our own environmental footprint but help our customers do the same. Everyone here seems so much potential for natural gas to support a cleaner future, and we are all very committed to helping Southern Company reach its net-zero goal.
With all these new opportunities, there came a need to organize them in one place to ensure maximum impact. So, under the guidance of our Executive Vice President of External Affairs and Chief External and Public Affairs Officer Bryan Batson, my team will align efforts enterprise-wide. Our goal is to strategically and efficiently source environmental solutions – whether they are from technology, processes or new products – to ultimately benefit our customers and communities.
But as you noted, caring for the environment is nothing new to us. For more than 20 years, we have worked closely with our state commissioners to strategically invest in our own system, which, in addition to providing tremendous reliability and safety benefits, has created significant environmental gains. And affordability is always on our minds. We seek to build solutions that balance cost with benefit.
Between 1998 and 2018, for example, we invested more than $2.2 billion in pipeline and infrastructure replacements that reduced our annual methane emissions for our distribution companies by 50% – all while accommodating a 20% growth in our distribution system. Because of these efforts, we now deliver gas at almost 99.9% efficiency.
Another long-standing effort is in the area of environmental stewardship. For example, we’ve partnered for more than 10 years with groups like the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, where our employees have donated hours of their time to preserve and protect river environments. In Illinois, we’ve worked with nonprofit partners like Openlands to restore prairie acreage near our facilities as far back as 2005. Our Virginia distribution company has worked with the Nature Conservancy for years to plant longleaf pines, a key part of the Southeast’s environmental heritage. And just last year, the Southern Company Gas Charitable Foundation sponsored the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s Capital Campaign to educate its visitors about the importance of preserving natural habitats and bring them closer to nature.
Q) That is a pretty big accomplishment. How else has the company has influenced change?
Mello: We are dedicated to helping our communities become cleaner. Every day, we support emissions reductions through customer energy efficiency programs. Nicor Gas’ program in Illinois, for instance, has saved more than 840,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions since 2011. That’s equal to almost 100,000 homes’ energy use over the course of a year.
In our home state of Georgia, we played a part in forming America’s first Clean Cities coalition, which fosters economic, environmental, and energy security by working to advance affordable, domestic transportation fuels, energy-efficient mobility systems and other fuel-saving technologies and practices.
A lot of our work with Clean Cities focuses on transportation. Since the 1980s, we have been building compressed natural gas (CNG) stations and converting commercial fleets, including our own, to CNG vehicles. Compared with diesel and gasoline, CNG can reduce common urban pollutants up to 90%. Today, there are 55 natural gas fueling stations in Georgia, and overall, Clean Cities-Georgia has achieved an impact in energy use by avoiding nearly 18 billion gallons of gasoline.
Upstream, we promote sustainable production to our suppliers. We are a founding member of Our Nation’s Energy Future (ONE Future), a natural gas industry-led organization dedicated to voluntarily achieve a science-based average rate of methane emissions intensity equal to 1% or less of total natural gas production by 2025. Our natural gas bid selection process offers a competitive edge to suppliers committed to greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. Our distribution company in the mid-Atlantic, Virginia Natural Gas, has announced that it aspires to provide customers with fuel that is 100% sourced, transported and distributed by companies that have pledged to reduce GHG emissions to 1% or less across the value chain.
Q) Where do we go from here?
Mello: We provide our customers with a fantastic product. It is the utility player of fuels: clean, safe, reliable and affordable. Natural gas has led a transformation in the energy industry, contributing to a 61% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector since 2005, and it has the potential to support increased use of renewables by serving as a reliable backup source of energy. Doing this will not only ensure service reliability, it will keep energy costs manageable.
In the past two decades, Southern Company Gas has mitigated more than 3.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere. That’s equal to removing over 710,000 cars from the road. We remain committed to reducing our own emissions footprint even more; however, we want to take that commitment one step further.
We believe natural gas companies are in a unique position to support our society achieving economy-wide net zero emissions. As part of our sustainability strategy, we are evaluating opportunities across the value chain to decrease our customers’ emissions via initiatives like Georgia Natural Gas’ Greener Life carbon offsets program; to leverage our existing infrastructure for locally sourced renewable natural gas that facilitates economy-wide carbon reductions, and to expand industry-wide efforts to voluntarily reduce methane emissions. Our continued investment in innovation, research and development further support the potential for these opportunities as we look to 2050 and beyond. We will work within each state’s regulatory framework – with support from customers, regulators, state policymakers and environmental agencies – to ensure that our carbon reduction efforts meet customers’ needs and preferences. We remain committed to the core principles of providing clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers now and in the future. Together, we can make natural gas part of the foundation of a sustainable future.