Atlanta-based Southern Co. sees natural gas providing a U.S. energy bridge stretching beyond 2050, combined with a growing portfolio of both nuclear and renewable resources.

Southern retired 2,000 MW of coal-fired generation in 2019 while growing renewables to more than 12% of its power sources, CEO Tom Fanning said during a conference call with analysts Thursday. While reducing its revenues from coal-fired generation to 14% of overall revenues, Southern reduced its carbon footprint 44% from 2007, he said.

Natural gas remains part of the Southern strategy, although Fanning is lukewarm toward major new gas pipeline projects because of the current societal noise surrounding environmental concerns and anti-fossil fuel movements.

“We participated in a gas pipeline with Kinder Morgan and got a really good outcome there, and we have done some other things around the margins,” said Fanning, who sees two issues to consider when planning new pipeline projects. “One is the environmental pushback, which is tough, and the other is the long-term question about natural gas in the system.

“We absolutely believe in gas. I used to say when we bought Nicor that natural gas was the bridge to 2050, and now I really believe gas will go beyond 2050. In order to achieve low to no, or net zero, carbon by 2050 we are going to have to find a way to keep gas in play and deal with the carbon additives, given how cheap and plentiful it is.”

Southern helps run national and international research centers for coal capture and sequestration with a focus on coal, but Fanning thinks in the future the focus will shift to natural gas as well.

Southern has been successful in a number of smaller gas pipeline lateral additions to existing pipelines important to the company’s generation mix, according to CFO Drew Evans. “We’re really pleased with those investments, and see them as important pieces of our infrastructure,” he said.

Gas holdings in Southern’s utility portfolio in the Midwest and Southeast are increasing their net rate base 10% annually for gas, compared to 5% annually for the electrics, mostly through modernization of distribution and transmission systems, Evans said.

Southern reported 4Q2019 earnings of $440 million (42 cents/share), compared with $278 million (27 cents) for the same period in 2018. For full-year 2019, earnings were $4.74 billion ($4.53), compared with $2.23 billion ($2.18) in 2018.