BILL MINOR: Proposed lignite plant generates wide controversy

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Few people probably even knew Mississippi had a strata of low-grade soft brown coal called lignite. Long ignored as a cheap fuel, lignite has taken center stage of a proposed $2.4 billion advanced type of electric generating plant that has triggered a hot environmental controversy.
Gulf-coast based Mississippi Power Company that serves 23 counties has asked the state Public Service Commission for a construction permit to locate the facility in Kemper County and strip-mine 45 square miles of land (MPC says only 38 sq. mi.) to mine the lignite. The “History of Mississippi” published by the state Department of Archives and History, says lignite is found in east-central counties in beds one to three feet thick at depths of 1,000 feet.
“It would be a massive hole in the ground,” charges Louie Miller, of the Sierra Club in Mississippi, whose organization is the leading opponent of the project. The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, is the nation’s oldest conservation organization.
MPC says the plant, believed to be the first using integrated gasification combined cycle technology in the country, would gasify the lignite into energy to generate electricity, while at the same time capturing carbon produced.
Significantly, MPC would receive some $550 million in federal subsidies to build the power plant under the “clean coal” law administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Anthony Topazi, MPC’s president, said the company had studied for 15 years the use of lignite as a fuel source and determined it was “the best option to provide affordable and environmentally responsible electricity to our customers.”
The process requires 7 million gallons of water daily, which MPC says it will get from the city of Meridian’s waste water. It will be piped the 38 miles to the Kemper County site and there recycled. Miller contends that the company did not include the cost of the water supply and pipeline, with necessary rights-of-way, in the $2.4 billion cost. A company spokesperson told this writer it had.
But the most controversial part of the proposed generating plant is that MPC customers would have to foot the bill during construction, unlike existing plants in the state (including Entergy’s Grand Gulf nuclear plant) which were built with private investor dollars.
Mississippi Power had lobbied a bill through the Legislature in 2008 that allowed it to build the plant by making construction cost part of the company’s rate base, if the state Public Service Commission approves. The public service body has been gathering public comment with a goal of making a decision on the MPC petition at the end of May.
“It’s corporate socialism,” declared Derrick Johnson, president of the state NAACP, which also opposes the Kemper County coal plant.
Miller, the Sierra spokesman, challenges MPC’s contention that the proposed 582 megawatt Kemper plant is necessary to supply needs of its customers in the future. He contends that the state already has a surplus of power generated from 12 electric plants. “They sit idle 85 percent of the time and Mississippi Power can readily acquire whatever power it needs without adding more,” Miller said.
The company contends, however, that it can’t get needed long-term commitments from the 12 electric generating plants, some of which are owned by out-of-state companies. MPC argues that it has options to acquire a 40-year supply of lignite as a cheaper fuel than natural gas used in the generating plants which have surplus capacity.
Gov. Haley Barbour has praised the proposed plant as an important economic development that will add hundreds of jobs to the state. Not surprisingly, one of the clients of Barbour’s old lobbying firm, BGR Group, is the Southern Company, MPC’s parent company.
In its annual report on “Client Successes” BGR lists one as successfully negotiating DOE’s approval to transfer authority for a clean coal power plant from Florida to a new location in Mississippi, together with the federal subsidy appropriated for the project.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.