Chancery Judge Jim Persons heard from both sides yesterday during a hearing in Gulfport.
The 582-megawatt plant is being built between Mississippi 493 and Mississippi 495 near the Liberty community. It will use a process that converts coal into a synthesis gas that can generate electricity with fewer emissions than existing pulverized coal power plants.
The state Public Service Commission gave its go-ahead to the plant last year.
Environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, are upset with the environmental aspects of the proposal, along with the company’s plans to pass over $2 billion in construction costs on to ratepayers.
The group contends the PSC greenlighted the plan without getting sufficient evidence it meets legal standards that such utility projects provide “adequate, reliable and economical services” or that customers would be charged reasonable and justified rates for those services.
“The decisions the commission came to were not supported with substantial evidence,” said Robert Wygul, the attorney representing the Sierra Club.
Mississippi Power attorney Ben Stone touted the plant’s virtues, for the company and rate payers, especially the use of lignite coal.
“The reason why fuel diversity is so important is two basic reasons: cost and availability,” Stone said. “If you have, which Mississippi Power Company does, you have coal sources which you can burn and generate electricity and you have natural gas facilities.”
The Sierra Club contends they don’t believe the total amount of the increase on customer’s power bills, which reports have suggested are between 33 percent, according to the company, and as much as 48 percent, according to the Sierra Club, could be considered “reasonable.”
The company has said those increases could be phased in over 10 years. The environmental group also has contended natural gas would have been a more viable option for fueling the plant, and it wouldn’t increase the overall cost, which could be as much as $2.8 billion, by very much.
Persons asked about having customers pick up the cost for construction.
“Even if a 45 percent increase is reasonable under the act, considering the need and cost, what if they can’t afford it?” the judge asked. “The commission didn’t go that far.”
An attorney for the PSC, Christopher Lomax, said the argument should be handled in another venue, because state law allows the cost of construction to be passed onto customers.
“If the Sierra Club has an issue with that policy, they need to be in Jackson, Miss. … not here in Harrison County,” Lomax said. “They need to be talking to the folks at the Capitol, not the courthouse.”