Mississippi realizes how to make a clean coal plant work: Run it on natural gas

After wasting $7.5 billion, the state realizes its coal-to-gas plant should just skip the coal

Lignite coal mined in Mississippi for “clean coal” plant. CREDIT: AP/Rogelio V. Solis, File
Lignite coal mined in Mississippi for “clean coal” plant. CREDIT: AP/Rogelio V. Solis, File

At his Wednesday rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump once again touted his imaginary revival of coal and the importance of “clean, beautiful coal.”

That same day, Mississippi utility regulators finally figured out the best way to make the state’s wildly expensive “clean coal” plant much cleaner and more affordable: Skip the coal part entirely.

Sadly, this realization comes after spending billions on cost overruns in a complicated scheme to convert coal to gas while capturing and burying some of the CO2 released in the process. The new plan is to use natural gas.

Conceived over a decade ago when natural gas and renewables were both more expensive, Southern Company’s Kemper plant was originally supposed to cost $2.4 billion. It broke ground in 2010 and, like most clean coal projects, was plagued from the very first by mismanagement, delays, and cost overruns.

By 2015, the 582-megawatt plant was running primarily on natural gas because the coal-to-gas part of the scheme had proved too challenging. Last summer, the New York Times published a scathing expose on the project, run by Southern Company’s Mississippi Power unit. Internal emails, documents, and secretly recorded conversations provided by a whistleblower “show that the plant’s owners drastically understated the project’s cost and timetable and repeatedly tried to conceal problems as they emerged.”

On Wednesday, the Mississippi Public Service Commissioners passed a motion telling its lawyers to draft an order requiring a solution “that eliminates ratepayer risk for unproven technology” and that would “allow only for operation of a natural gas facility at the Kemper Project location.”

The commissioners want ratepayers to cover only the $840 million in equipment to burn gas. Otherwise, as the AP explains, “Southern shareholders, who have already taken $3.1 billion in losses, could absorb roughly another $3.5 billion.”

With that kind of money at stake, this could end up in court for years. But the order will no doubt send a chill through any utilities still pursuing or imagining a clean coal plant.

Ironically, Trump’s proposed budget for the Energy Department slashes funds available for clean coal by more than half. It seems even his own administration understands what he doesn’t: Clean coal is an oxymoron.