It’s beginning to sound like 2010 again at the Public Service Commission.
Business and government leaders have streamed into rate proceedings over Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County power plant, supporting the utility’s position.
And Mississippi Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., has taken an aggressive position that commissioners should hurry up and do what the company wants, instead of conducting months more of proceedings.
But after more than $7 billion in spending, commissioners appear decidedly more skeptical of the utility.
Back then, the commission came under pressure from then-Gov. Haley Barbour and others to approve the plant, and then to increase the cost cap. That cap was supposed to allow for some cost overruns, but construction at the plant blew through the original projected cost of $2.9 billion, ballooning to $7.5 billion.
Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat, always opposed Kemper, while commissioners Lynn Posey and Leonard Bentz were more amenable. But a key moment came in 2015, when Bentz’s replacement, appointed commissioner Steve Renfroe told the company it would be better off seeking to get paid for the part of the plant that was making power by burning natural gas. That decision, a stopgap at the time, ultimately led down a path to resolving the Kemper debacle — let customers pay for the natural gas-burning turbines and associated infrastructure, but shutter the part of the plant that was supposed to make synthetic gas from lignite coal.
Now, Southern is shouldering more than $6 billion in losses. But just how much the company will lose remains unresolved. The company, the Public Utilities Staff and other interested parties have been wrangling over about $250 million. The company wants those assets to go into the rate base, meaning customers will pay for them, and hold onto the current rate level for as long as possible.
The staff, which is separate from the commission, thinks the company should bear those losses as well, and wants rates to decline more quickly.
The company, though, is trying to sideline the staff, and is lining up allies in that fight, including some governments that represent thousands of ratepayers. During a negotiating period, Mississippi Power was unable to reach an agreement with the staff. But it did file an agreement it reached with the Meridian-based East Mississippi Business Development Corp., oil company Denbury Resources, union group Central Mississippi Building and Construction Trades Council, and the Ministerial Alliance Partnership.
The move was unusual because such agreements, called stipulations, typically feature a utility and the staff as central players. Mississippi Power, though, contends that this is the only agreement that meets the commission’s specifications, and says commissioners should move to an up-or-down vote on it. The commission disregarded that argument when it set a hearing schedule leading to a Kemper decision next January, but Mississippi Power on Sept. 15 asked the commission to reconsider.
In the meantime, the Lauderdale County board of supervisors, the city of Meridian, the city of Gulfport and a group of 10 state lawmakers including House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden and Senate President Pro Tem Terry Burton, have all expressed support for company. Also weighing in are the Gulf Coast Business Council and Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s Chamber of Commerce.
In sometimes identically worded resolutions, they argue Mississippi Power should get enough money to continue employing people, promoting economic development and giving gifts to community groups.
That support from the state’s political and business establishment helped Mississippi Power get what it wanted before. Commissioners will have to decide whether the greatest hits of 2010 are still in fashion.
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