ACKERMAN — The $450-million Red Hills Power Plant being constructed in Choctaw County is nearing completion with electrical generation testing to begin in October and the plant expected to come on line in early December.
The power plant will use lignite mined in the area as the fuel source for the electricity that will be sold to Tennessee Valley Authority. Lignite is a soft, low grade of coal that is plentiful in the area, but harder to burn than hard coal. A band of lignite reserves can be found from Alabama southeast of Meridian up into Tennessee north of Corinth and Iuka.
Bo Reid, executive director of the Choctaw County Economic Development Foundation, said there are enough lignite reserves within five miles of the plant to supply it with fuel for 30 years. Within another five-mile radius, there is enough lignite for another 30-year supply.
The Red Hills Plant is one of nine large new power plants either under construction in Mississippi or in the permitting stage. Each project represents investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of the new plants being constructed in Mississippi are merchant facilities being built to sell electricity on the wholesale market. But the Red Hills Plant will be a base load generating facility that will provide electricity to TVA.
Reid said that constructing a second lignite generating plant at the location is being considered in the next three to five years. A natural-gas fired plant is also being considered in the area.
“With the demand for electricity increasing in the Southeast, TVA is looking for another source for electricity,” Reid said.
Reid said there will be little disruption of area residents due to the mining operations for lignite. There are few people living in the sparsely populated area. And while some people will have to relocate, they will be paid for their land. Other landowners will be compensated for the coal. Once the coal is removed, the land will be restored by Mississippi Lignite, the coal mining company, for uses such as farming or forestry.
There has been a large impact from construction of the plant alone. During peak construction, about 1,200 people were employed. That compares to a total population in the county of only 10,000. There weren’t enough hotels or motels for all the workers, but numerous RV parks have opened to accommodate the workers.
“Everywhere you look there are RV parks that have been developing,” Reid said. “These construction people go from site to site, and carry their living accommodations with them. We’ve had a good group of people coming in to work. It is amazing the quality of the people with the plant and even the construction people.”
Permanent employment is expected to be 300 in the power plant and the coal mining operations. But the economic impact won’t stop there. Reid estimates that once the facility goes online with full taxation, it will double the tax base of Choctaw County.
Local officials are also working to attract new industries to the Ecoplex Industrial Park located next to the plant. Reid said that officials believe the impact of the new industries attracted to the area over the long run will be more significant than the plant itself.
Greenhouses are one business the economic development foundation is working to attract. The steam could be used for heating greenhouses before being recycled to be used in the power plant. Several greenhouse operations have expressed interest in the site including one operation that would employ 300 people.
Another byproduct of the plant that could result in spinoff businesses is fly ash, a byproduct of coal that could be used in a number of different industries. It can be used in sheetrock, concrete, cement, and for landfills, erosion control and road construction. Reid said that fly ash could save a considerable amount of money for road construction because the fly ash is less expensive than gravel.
An estimated 690,000 tons annual of fly ash will be generated by the power plant. Obviously, that means a lot of lignite will have to be mined to fuel the power plant annually. But Reid said only small amounts of land will be disturbed at a time.
“We will be disturbing very little land per day, and then will be restoring land at about the same rate,” Reid said. “We looked at an area of Texas that has a similar plant that disturbs 1.1 acre of land per day. We believe that because we have a thicker, 22-foot vein, they will only disturb a quarter acre per day. So there won’t be a tremendous amount of dirt moving out there.”
Officials are also considering putting in a 200-acre recreational lake as part of the restoration after the lignite is mined.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.