When construction began in 2010, the Kemper County power plant was slated to be the crown jewel of clean coal. The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate plan, it was thought that Kemper’s revolutionary ability to burn gasified coal while emitting significantly less pollution than conventional coal-fired plants would simultaneously pave the way for future low-emission energy and provide a much needed shot in the arm for a dying coal industry. However, amidst scandal and setback, the Kemper plant is now $5 billion over budget and several years past deadline, and after a recent recommendation from state regulators, may have to abandon coal altogether in favor of cheaper natural gas.
Owned by Southern Co. and operated by Mississippi Power, the Kemper plant sits on approximately 2,900 acres in rural Kemper County, Mississippi about thirty miles north of Meridian. The plant’s construction has been a massive undertaking of biblical proportion. Nearly 6,000 workers have erected a monument to clean coal comprised of 109,000 cubic yards of concrete, 40,000 tons of structural steel, 908,000 linear feet of above ground piping, 6 miles of natural gas pipeline, 62 miles of CO2 pipeline, 60 miles of transmission lines and a 500,000,000 gallon water reservoir. However, since Kemper’s inception, the project has been plagued by setbacks. The plant was originally scheduled to go online in May 2014 at a cost of $2.4 billion. But, as of June 2017, the plant is still not in service and costs have soared to staggering $7.5 billion, making Kemper the most expensive power plant ever built per watt of electricity generated.
Clean coal proponents have defended the slow progress and sky-rocketing costs arguing that with any large scale project delays and unforeseen costs are unavoidable due to certain unpredictable factors like bad weather and labor shortages. The plant’s backers, including some federal energy officials, have also asserted that Kemper’s innovative nature, essentially being the first clean coal plant, means that ratepayers will just have to tolerate certain growing pains while engineers figure out how to implement new technologies. In their view, Kemper is a prototype for future clean coal plants, and any problems encountered are just kinks to be worked out that will pay handsome dividends when it comes time to construct the next plant.
Despite these proffered justifications for the delays, it cannot be disputed that Kemper’s construction has been stymied, at least in part, by Southern Co.’s ongoing legal troubles. In 2014, a whistleblower came forward alleging that plant’s owners had broken federal law and engaged in corporate fraud to cover up Kemper’s ongoing delays. In the wake of this scandal, Kemper has been the subject of an ongoing SEC investigation, and more recently, ratepayers alleging fraud, have sued Southern Co.
Despite the mounting costs and delays, Southern Co. has been resolute, sticking to its original design to get Kemper online as a coal gasification plant. In fact, the Kemper site was chosen for its proximity to large deposits of lignite, a low-grade, yellow-brown coal that was intended to fuel the plant over its forty-year life span. However, Southern Co.’s well intended plans to forge a path for clean coal may soon have to give way to more pragmatic concerns as the Mississippi Public Service Commission, in order to eliminate more unforeseen risk to ratepayers, has recommended that Southern Co. abandon unproven clean coal technology and burn cheaper natural gas.
Kemper already burns gas at its facility. Southern Co. intended the plant to operate using “transport integrated gasification” (TRIG) technology. TRIG converts lignite coal into synthesis gas using a two-round process to convert a higher percentage of lignite into gas at a low temperature. The synthesized gas is cleaner than burning the pulverized coal itself, and, with the addition of a carbon capture unit, Southern Co. expects to reduce CO2 emissions by 65 percent with captured CO2 being injected into oil and gas wells to help facilitate secondary recovery.
Although no official decision has been made, the Public Service Commission’s recommendation could spell the beginning of the end or rather the end before the beginning of coal at Kemper. The Commission has informed Mississippi Power that it has 45 days from July 6 2017, to remove risk to rate payers from the lignite coal gasifier and related assets. If no settlement is reached, then Kemper may be powered solely by natural gas for its entire service life. No matter the outcome, the ongoing Kemper saga has definitely raised questions about the future of clean coal given market for gas. As it stands, any power plant may struggle to justify using coal instead of gas and Kemper may well be a prototype, just not for the clean coal revolution it was intended to spearhead.