GULFPORT — Mississippi and the state’s elected officials are intent on becoming an integral part of finding alternative fuels and decreasing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. That dream again came into focus with the recent announcement by Mississippi Power Company of plans to build a clean-burning coal facility in East Mississippi.
Federal legislation spearheaded by the state’s congressional delegation is making that option more attractive to the Gulfport-based company. Passage of the National Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides federal tax credits to encourage investments in new fuel technology and has Mississippi Power Company taking steps toward building a $1.5-billion, high-tech coal-powered plant in Kemper County.
“This is a forward-thinking project that puts Mississippi at the helm of America’s effort to achieve energy independence through more domestic production of alternative and traditional fuel sources,” said U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who led passage of the act.
Kim Flowers, vice president of generation for Mississippi Power, says the utility sees passage of the act as an opportunity to marry what the parent Southern Company is trying to develop with alternative energy.
“There are a number of hurdles for building the plant, but we have applied for the tax credits of $133 million to move forward in our country to get away from foreign energy,” she said. “The stars have aligned for us.”
She says the energy act’s timetable drove the company to apply before they could complete their projections but they are evaluating all the alternatives they had not started when the provisions of the act became available.
“It’s a very viable option,” Flowers said. “We screened all the possibilities before applying for the credits. The studies thus far say it’s a very competitive option but we must dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s to really get down to the detail work to ferret it out.”
The Southern Company has been doing research on this technology for 15 years. This coal-burning technology burns lignite, a type of coal found all over the state. “That’s what makes it so attractive,” Flowers said. “Everyone is getting involved with lignite because it’s found in Mississippi.”
She said the company will have a lignite mine that will employ around 180 workers, and officials have been to Choctaw County to check out lignite mining operations there where the coal is plentiful.
A power-generating facility of this kind will compete with other sources including nuclear energy that is re-emerging as a viable option; pulverized coal; natural gas-fired combined cycle; and the extension of some of Mississippi Power’s existing units.
“When we think about meeting the resource needs, we must consider how to best meet the need of our customers,” Flowers said. “This coal method is an integrated gasification combined cycle that makes synthetic gas and burns in a combined cycle plant. In all technologies, we must put electricity on the line. We have to have a mechanism to spin the generator.”
The facility, if built, will have just under 100 employees and should produce enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes for a year or 600 megawatts. The average customer uses 1,000 watts per year.
“This will be the cleanest, most advanced coal technology available today,” Flowers said. “Another advantage is that the Meridian location gets some of our generating resources off the Coast where some were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.”
Flowers, who’s been with the Southern Company 22 years, notes that the final decision of whether or not to build the facility lies with the state’s Public Service Commission.
“It’s not ours to determine,” she said. “We’re dedicating 2007 to this timeline of detail as to design, availability, price, land acquisition, mineral rights and other things. We will get a firmer idea on it.”
A number of Southern Company employees are involved in the process, including some in Mississippi, support people in Birmingham and finance people in Atlanta. Additionally, a 20-employee engineering team will be working full time on the project this year.
“We’ll review the whole thing in early 2008 and should be able to present it to the Public Service Commission in the spring of ‘08,” she said. “I think we’re 12 to 18 months out from going to them.”
Flowers praised Sen. Lott and Gov. Haley Barbour’s leadership in promoting alternative energy. “It’s a project to get excited about. It uses a natural resource in Mississippi,” she said. “The governor has a vision to make the state energy self reliant.”
“American people want energy independence,” Barbour said, “and America is the OPEC of coal. We have more BTUs of coal than they do of oil.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.