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New energy institute offers more questions than it answers

As you may have seen last week, a new institute will work on an energy policy to promote long-term economic growth in Mississippi as the state pursues renewable power projects.

Gov. Haley Barbour announced the creation of the Mississippi Energy Policy Institute at a news conference at the state Capitol.

The institute will include representatives from several companies, including Mississippi Power Co. and Chevron Corp., and from state universities and other industry groups. 

However, at a time when energy consumption is of interest to everyone, Barbour gave very few details as to what this new institute is all about.

He did say it will be part of Momentum Mississippi, a statewide public-private partnership formed in 2004 to foster economic development in the state. And Barbour said that John Palmer, a former telecommunications executive and former U.S. ambassador to Portugal, will be the temporary head of the institute.

“I believe energy is one of the most important and powerful public policy issues that this country will deal with in the coming decade,” Barbour said. “It is hugely important issue for Mississippi.”

Looking at this from a more pessimistic viewpoint though, Barbour is very close to Southern Company and Mississippi Power.

Anthony Topazi, the  president and chief executive officer of Gulfport-based Mississippi Power, is also a key player in Momentum Mississippi.

The Kemper County coal (lignite gasification) plant represents the largest addition of capital investment to a utility’s rate base in Mississippi’s history, which has a direct correlation to Mississippi Power’s earnings. Mississippi Power’s current book value is approximately $1 billion, and this plant would take it to around $4 billion. There are quite a number of very legitimate challenges to this plant, such as need, technology risk, cost, alternatives, etc. that the Mississippi Public Service Commission will be looking at over the next several months.

Are groups like the one announced by Barbour last week being put in place to spin this plant and possibly Entergy’s next nuclear plant in Port Gibson?

The answer is unknown, but the question is legitimate.

Barbour noted that Mississippi, like other Southern states, is an energy producer.

There are more than 40 biomass-related renewable energy projects in the state and Mississippi has Grand Gulf, the 1,266-megawatt boiling water nuclear reactor near that became operational in 1985. It employs more than 700 people.

Barbour pointed to Mississippi Power’s planned $2.2-billion power plant in Kemper County and Chevron’s $800 million in upgrades to its Pascagoula facility as examples of the state’s potential to become a leading power producer.

“We’re beginning to have more jobs in Mississippi that are part of energy intensive operations in manufacturing,” Barbour said. “We have had over $20 billion of energy projects in some stage of preparation in Mississippi during my time as governor.”

A study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that clean energy jobs grew by 9.1 percent compared with a national average of 3.7 percent from 1998 to 2007, the latest year available. And in Mississippi, jobs in the renewable energy economy grew nearly seven times faster than overall jobs in the same nine-year period, the study said.

There are a lot of reason to hope this institute makes for a lot of positive news for Mississippi, but there is reason for many questions to be asked, questions that need to answered.

 

Contact MBJ Managing Editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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