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.”