PSC’s Mississippi Power probe continues as regulators mull next move

MPC_Color_Logo_squareAn abrupt leadership change at Mississippi Power Co. spurred by the former president’s stonewalling the Mississippi Public Service Commission has regulators plotting their next steps.

Southern Co.’s board of directors voted Monday to name G. Edison “Ed” Holland the utility’s new president. Holland replaces Ed Day, who was named president in 2010. Day has spent a total of 30 years with Southern Co.

The change is effective immediately. Holland will be “responsible for the operations of Mississippi Power, including the overseeing the continued construction of the Kemper County energy facility,” said a company press release.

Day’s departure came about a week after the PSC learned that he had ordered that documents containing details of when the utility knew about cost overruns at the Kemper County coal plant be withheld from regulators.

The PSC in April 2012 affirmed the project’s certificate of public convenience and necessity, after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the original certificate — issued in 2010 — did not cite sufficient evidence from the record of proceedings.

In May 2012, Mississippi Power revealed that the Kemper facility would cost $366 million more than it had originally estimated.

Day

Day

Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz, who counts as his constituents most of the utility’s 190,000 ratepayers, said in an interview Monday morning that regulators asked about a year ago for information that outlined when the company knew about the overrun, in response to it being revealed right after the PSC reaffirmed the project’s certificate.

Day, Bentz said, ordered that the information be withheld.

“My investigation revealed about a week ago that there was information not being given to us under the direction of Ed Day,” Bentz said. Bentz said regulators received the information last week. He added that his office will continue to investigate the matter.

“We’re not done,” he said. “This is an absolutely ridiculous way of doing business. Corporations sometimes hide behind trying to protect the shareholders. If this is what that is, they live in a different society than what’s right. We were not fed and given the proper information. What does that do to the credibility of Mississippi Power moving forward?

“This is a culture that has kind of somewhat become acceptable in the corporate world, to put a spin on everything,” Bentz continued. “Talk straight and give me the truth. A spin is a lie to me. We are not done. We are going to protect the ratepayers. Ed Day’s departure is a direct result of us as regulators doing our jobs and protecting the ratepayers.”

Bentz said Southern Co. CEO Thomas Fanning “has done everything he said he would do” since becoming involved in the matter. “He deserves a lot of credit.”

The PSC has a few options moving forward, but each would require extensive fact-finding procedures. Commissioners could issue a show cause as to why Mississippi Power should not be fined for filing monthly reports that they knew or should have known were not completely accurate, should it become clear that the company knew about the $366 million cost overrun when Kemper’s certificate was reaffirmed.

To reach that point, the PSC would have to prove that there was an active effort to conceal the overrun, which carries a high standard of proof.

Presley

Presley

“I think what we’ve got to do is obviously make sure that we have a full understanding of the facts,” said Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat who has opposed the plant due to its cost to ratepayers and the technology being unproven on a commercial scale. “This whole situation is just about a week old now.”

Presley said Holland’s taking the reins of Mississippi Power “is the best move they’ve made in the three years we’ve been dealing with the Kemper project. There’s somebody in charge now that is not completely married to the project or its technology. The fact that the CEO and their chief witness (former vice president for generation development Tommy Anderson) for the Kemper plant are out the door speaks for itself.”

The Kemper County coal plant is scheduled to begin production in May 2014, using lignite coal native to East Mississippi to generate electricity. Mississippi Power last month revised the project’s cost estimate upward, bumping it to just over $3.4 billion. Per the terms of a settlement with the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the utility can charge ratepayers only for the first $2.4 billion in construction costs. Lawmakers approved in the session that ended in April up to $1 billion in bonding authority that would cover cost overruns.

“They told us they could build this plant for $2.4 billion, and that’s what we expect them to do,” Bentz said.

A Mississippi Power spokesperson did not return a message seeking comment.

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