On June 19, I accepted an invitation from Mississippi Power to visit their Kemper facility, and get an “up close and personal” view of the plant and how it works.
Notwithstanding all of the controversy the construction of Kemper has caused in recent years, the actual working of the plant is deceptively simple.
Basically, lignite coal is mined a few hundred yards away from the plant. That coal is moved through a process that will convert it to syngas. The syngas is then used to drive the energy output of the plant, and the resulting electricity is then moved into the grid. Obviously, the reality is that the process is highly complex, but from the company’s perspective, the technology and equipment are proven, and the company maintains that the plant will produce electricity that is comparable to natural gas plants in terms of cleanliness and emissions. How do they know this? We asked Assistant Plant Manager Bruce Harrington for the answer.
“All of this has been done before,” he said. “We’re just bringing the various elements together in one place.”
Bruce said that he’s been involved in this technology since the 1990s.
“This is clean energy,” he said. “It will enable us to balance our energy production among various fuels, and ultimately, allow us to be more efficient in the production of electricity.”
He pointed out that the company is making investments in wind, solar, and nuclear power, so that a clean plant such as Kemper is just one more cog in a big wheel.
“There are a number of important reasons why we felt Kemper was the right way to go,” he said. “Among those, was the need to build a plant in a somewhat safer environment, because we learned first-hand that a hurricane, such as Katrina, can wreak havoc on power plants.”
He also pointed out that since the fuel source is right there, and the price of that fuel will be a known stable factor, that Kemper will help to shield its ratepayers from potentially volatile fluctuations in fuel cost.
“Right now, natural gas is priced very low. Oil has shown the kind of up and down volatility that makes it difficult to predict your costs a year or two down the road. But for sure, none of us knows what kind of cost volatility we may see in coming years. Things can change overnight, based on events that happen in other parts of the world. Kemper is insulated from that sort of fluctuation,” he said.
He pointed to the abundance of lignite as another reason why the plant makes sense.
“There is a lignite strain running all the way from west Tennessee, through Mississippi, and into southeast Alabama,” he said. “All told, you’re looking at over 400 billion tons in that strain. In its useful operating life, Kemper will probably use no more than 180 million tons of that resource.”
“We don’t burn coal here,” he said. Instead, we extract the gases from the lignite and turn it into usable syngas. That allows us to capture the CO2 and prevent it from going up the stack. There you have clean energy.”
That’s not all the company gets from the coal. The plant will derive a number of valuable industrial chemicals, including sulphuric acid (very important in paper production), ammonia (important in making fertilizer), and others. Once in full production, the estimate is that the value of those chemicals on the market could range anywhere between $50 and $100 million per year.
“That will obviously benefit our customers,” Bruce said.
For all of the controversy that Kemper has generated, Bruce suggested that our state has seen really significant benefits from its construction.
“For instance, Kemper contributed to over 12,000 direct and indirect jobs”, Communications Manager Lee Youngblood said. “Over 500 Mississippi companies worked on the project. We paid more than $75 million in state and local taxes, and we’ll pay $30 million in state and local taxes when the plant is fully operational. And let’s not forget Kemper County. The plant will contribute more than $13 million a year to this county, which only has 12,000 residents. That’s a substantial impact. Looking at the recent news, in which Mississippi was one of only 2 states that had negative economic growth last year, it does make you wonder how that would have looked without Kemper.”
After our meetings and discussions, we donned hard hats, vests, and eyewear protection and took the tour. We ascended in a cage elevator to near the top of the main project and got a great birdseye view of the entire facility, from the coal mine to the various elements of the plant itself. It was an impressive sight.
Following that, we then visited the coal mine to learn how that works. We spent some time with Matt Jones, Engineering and Operations Manager with North American Coal Corporation, which actually handles the mining and land reclamation.
Once in full production, the mining operation will employ 250-300 people (the Kemper plan itself will have 500 permanent jobs), and as they pointed out, “that’s a significant payroll impact for this area”. The mine operates on leased land, which benefits the landowner. More importantly, Matt told us that “the land restoration begins as soon as we’ve mined a specific area.”
He showed us the current mining pit (the coal is fairly shallow, ranging from 10-120 feet in depth), and right next to that, land that had been restored to its previous state. The difference was striking.
“This is an ongoing process,” he said. “We are regularly inspected to verify that we’re reclaiming the land effectively and efficiently.”
In full operation, the plant will consume approximately 700 tons of coal per hour, and will produce up to 585 megawatts of energy.
One thing that came as somewhat of a surprise is that Kemper is currently producing electricity using natural gas. Of course, that’s not what the plant was designed for, but it is delivering electricity into the grid.
It’s expected that final testing will be completed during the course of this year, and the plant will be fully operational during the first half of 2016.
From the company’s perspective, the goal is to get the plant up and running, let it quietly do its job, and supply the energy needs of business and consumers for the next 50 years.
It was an interesting visit. You can see a video on our website, msbusiness.com, or on our YouTube channel, mbjournal.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal publisher Alan Turner at email@example.com or (601) 364-1021.