The announcement that Southern Company was throwing in the towel on Kemper’s lignite gasification came as no surprise. The project was doomed from the start. Scaling up an experimental plant by a factor of 100 is engineering malpractice. Coal gasification, a technology that has been around for 80 years, has never been cost feasible. Trying to do it with low-grade lignite borders on the absurd.
Kemper will still run as a natural gas plant, which is fine. The Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) needs to be vigilant in making sure none of the $6.8 billion lignite gasification costs get included in the rate base. Mississippi Power ratepayers should not pay a penny for that failed project. Fortunately, the media publicity surrounding the Kemper boondoggle has changed the make-up of the PSC, which seems steadfast in its commitment to protect ratepayers from the Kemper disaster. The Northside Sun, which won national awards for its Kemper coverage, deserves some credit for this. Think about that when you choose to renew your subscription. It is conceivable that without such media scrutiny, a politically compromised PSC could have forced ratepayers to eat billions in Kemper costs, saddling one-third of our state with exorbitant energy costs for a generation. This would have hurt the growth of the entire state, forcing all Mississippians to shoulder greater tax burdens.
Credit also should go to PSC commissioner Brandon Presley, who opposed the project from day one. Unfortunately, Presley, a Democrat, was out-voted by two Republican commissioners who, along with the rest of our state’s Republican leadership, led by former Gov. Haley Barbour, supported Kemper slavishly. They were remunerated well for this devotion. Anti-cronyism think tank Bigger Pie, led by Northsiders Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote, deserve credit, as does Hattiesburg’s oil maverick Tom Blanton, who personally bankrolled the successful lawsuits against Kemper. There were others working behind the scenes who also contributed to the opposition.
In retrospect, no new power plant was needed. Energy consumption is flat in Mississippi. For one percent of the cost of Kemper, the PSC could have demanded that Mississippi Power link its grid to MISO, a regional grid cooperative, where it could buy the least expensive energy from hundreds of competing plants all over the country. Entergy is already on such a grid, saving ratepayers millions a year.
Or better yet, let Kemper be the impetus for Mississippi to deregulate electricity as Texas has. In Texas, consumers can choose to buy their electricity from any power plant they so choose at the best rate. Environmentalists can buy wind energy. Cost conscious consumers can buy from a natural gas plant. It’s their choice.
Meanwhile, the gargantuan Kemper lignite plant will stand as monument to the cost of corporate hubris and political corruption. The huge edifice of concrete and steel will standing rusting until its metal and steel is sold for scrap.
Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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