This Utility Could TRIG-ger a Powerful Revolution

Southern Company's massive investment in new nuclear and coal facilities may represent the future of American energy.

Feb 11, 2014 at 9:02AM

Utility stocks rarely make news. That's because of their well-deserved reputations as being slow and steady companies. After all, electricity demand isn't very volatile, and doesn't drastically change even when the broader economy swings. Providing the nation with electricity may not seem all that exciting on the surface, but Southern Company (NYSE:SO) is doing some very exciting things that investors should know about.

Despite calls for the demise of nuclear energy and coal-fired power plants, Southern Company is investing heavily in both sources of power in the years ahead. Its Vogtle project in Georgia are two of the first new nuclear units built in the United States in the last 30 years. In addition, the Kemper project in Mississippi represents a major step into the 21st century for American coal. With these projects in mind, there is a lot for Southern Company's investors to talk about.

Finally, a plan for clean coal
Southern Company is plowing huge resources in a radical technology that has the potential to permanently transform how utilities utilize coal. The Kemper facility is a 582-megawatt electric power plant that features a high-efficiency technology capable of utilizing lignite, which accounts for more than half of the world's coal reserves.

The technology is called Transport Integrated Gasification, or TRIG, and was developed by Southern Company and KBR, (NYSE:KBR).This technology converts lignite to gas at a much lower temperature than traditional coal conversion, resulting in significantly lower costs than what's possible with existing gasification technologies. The Kemper facility will employ two KBR TRIG gasifiers to produce clean coal energy.

This is a revolutionary plan for Southern that will allow for greater power production at a lower capital cost. In addition, the facility is more environmentally friendly than existing coal burning technologies, since it involves fewer emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. Southern Company management hopes to begin operation at Kemper by the end of the year.

Of course, costs are still a considerable concern. Southern Company's results last year were weighed down by $729 million, or $0.83 per share, by increased cost estimates for the Kemper project. It's important for Southern Company to keep costs under control, and not just for its own well-being. Other utilities may shy away from building similar clean coal plants on the basis of cost feasibility.

Using the nuclear option
In addition, Southern Company is building two massive nuclear facilities in Georgia, called Plant Vogtle units three and four. The two facilities represent a $14 billion investment, again with the stated strategy of lowering costs through greater efficiencies. Management expects to reap $4 billion in value over the next available option. Vogtle units three and four are expected to begin production in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and will contain a collective generating capacity of approximately 1,117 megawatts per unit.

It might seem downright crazy to invest in nuclear, given the struggles endured by Exelon (NYSE:EXC) in the past year. After all, nuclear is expensive, and Exelon proved what a difficult business it is since its adjusted earnings fell nearly 8% last year. Management specifically cited increased costs, and a difficult pricing environment as the primary culprits for the drop in adjusted earnings.

Nevertheless, Southern Company is confident its Vogtle plants will work in its favor. When completed, the Vogtle complex will be the largest nuclear generating station in the United States. Southern Company considers nuclear to perfectly complement its existing energy mix, and nuclear is a great opportunity since it produces no greenhouse gas emissions and presents less financial uncertainty given wildly fluctuating coal and gas prices.

How Southern can bring back coal and nuclear power
Southern Company's two major strategic initiatives, the Vogtle expansion and Kemper facility, are key to its future. Southern Company is investing heavily in nuclear and coal, two sources of energy that endure heavy criticism. The potential for these two facilities to provide more energy along with more favorable environmental impacts and cost savings is truly exciting. Through these massive undertakings, Southern Company is proving that utilities can give their investors a dose of excitement after all.

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Bob Ciura has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Exelon and Southern Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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