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Completion of the power plant in Kemper County was more than three years behind schedule.

UPDATE: PSC holds open ‘work session’ on Kemper, will post monthly reports

By JACK WEATHERLY

The Mississippi Public Service Commission voted Thursday to start posting on its website monthly progress reports from independent monitors on the troubled Kemper County clean-coal power plant project – long overdue and way over cost – has generated legal actions and criticism.

More than two years behind schedule and, at $6.6 billion, two and one-half times the original projected cost of $2.9 billion, the 582-megawatt plant is now about 99 percent complete in terms of construction and engineering, according to statements made by independent monitors Thursday in an open work session of the commission.

Additionally, the commission will start the process of unsealing and posting what had previously been treated as confidential documents dating to the certification of the plant in 2010. Regulators have been criticized for keeping certain supporting documents out of public view. 

Regarding the push for more transparency, the utility issued the following statement:

“Mississippi Power welcomes the opportunity to continue working with the Public Service Commission to inform our customers and the public about the Kemper County energy facility by making the Commission’s files more accessible, subject to our right to protect confidential and proprietary information.”

The plant is approaching what the company says is an end-of-August startup of commercial production by using gasified lignite, a low-grade coal, a large deposit of which is nearby and owned or leased by Mississippi Power, to power turbines that generate electricity. It has been operating since August 2014 on natural gas.

But with the startup status only 87 percent complete, it’s not likely that deadline will be met, the team indicated.

Hampered by technological problems, the plant is now 28 months behind the original completion schedule, which costs $30 million a month for a total of $840 million thus far, according to the team. The independent monitors with AECOM on Thursday reported that the initial cost of project was vastly underestimated because of a lack of engineering and historical benchmarks.

Sam Britton, southern district commissioner, made the motion to post the reports on the website, which was unanimously approved. Chairman Brandon Presley voted against the certification of the plant in 2010.

Britton and Central District Commissioner Cecil Brown took their seats on the panel in January after the November election and have had to bone up on the long-running case.

Brown said in a PSC release after the Thursday meeting that “we want the public to be assured that we will continue to ask questions and make the tough decisions necessary to see this project through to completion and we will make that available.”

Brown had said on Monday at the monthly Stennis Institute luncheon at the Capitol Club in Jackson  that he was concerned about the safety of the plant. Asked by a reporter what he meant by that, he said there is the possibility that it could “blow up.” Its high-pressure gasification process can lead to the risk of an explosion, according to a 2014 report by another independent monitor, Power Burns and Roe.

The 2014 report quotes the Southern Co., Mississippi Power’s parent, as saying that modifications were made to the plant because “major loss of containment on the syngas scrubbers would likely result in explosion due to large release of toxic syngas and could cause rapid depressurization of the gasifier, causing ash to inflate/expand and violently push its way through the syngas coolers and syngas scrubbers, creating steam explosion and uncontrolled ejection of 1,800 (degrees fahrenheit) ash into the gasifier structure and onto the plant site.

Brown issued a press release on Friday saying that “a local news outlet has reported that expert s told me . . . [that the plant] might explode. That report is incorrect. No one has indicated that to me.” And later in the release: “To be clear I have no reason to believe nor did I say that the Kemper Power Plant is likely to explode.”

In an interview after his statements were released, along posts on Twitter and Facebook, Brown said he had not read any reports of the possibility of an explosion.

Brown said on Thursday after the PSC meeting that he heard nothing from the monitors that caused him any concern. “Any plant can blow up,” he said.

David Mann of the independent monitoring team said during the meeting that the system’s two gasifiers, which turn the coal into a synthetic gas, have been tested by using sand instead of lignite, a low-grade coal that is being mined by the company on its nearby property. During the tests, cracks and holes were discovered in the inner refractory lining of one of the gasifiers.

That led to “hot spots” on the outer shell of the 200-foot-tall gasifier, he said. But the company has been able to  diagnose that problem and has made significant strides in solving it and other problems, Mann said. He did not raise any concerns about the possibility of explosions.

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