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Miss. officials seek more info about power plant financing

A state public service commissioner and a key lawmaker said in separate interviews Wednesday that they want executives from utility companies to publicly answer questions about a pay-as-you-go proposal to finance new power plants.

Critics say the proposal could increase what Mississippians pay for electricity in their homes and businesses. Companies say the change is needed to cover the cost of developing expensive new plants.

Brandon Presley, the Northern District public service commissioner, said he wants the PSC to hold public hearings and take sworn testimony from utility executives and others about the market demands for more power-generating capability.

Entergy wants to expand the Grand Gulf nuclear plant in southwest Mississippi, near Port Gibson.

“I don’t mean anybody’s not trustworthy. But outside the utility industry, we don’t have an independent analysis showing the need is there,” Presley said.

Under current Mississippi law, a utility company that wants to recover some of its power plant construction costs must wait until a facility is operating before asking the three-member PSC to approve a rate increase.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of a bill that would let the PSC approve a rate increase sooner. The legislative session is set to end April 19, and the two chambers have appointed members to negotiate a final version of the bill.

House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, is one of the negotiators. Ellis told reporters Wednesday that he will not predict whether the bill will survive.

Ellis said he plans to schedule a meeting at the Capitol and to call executives from Entergy and Mississippi Power to speak. He said he’ll also call representatives from rural electric power associations, the attorney general’s office and the PSC.

“What we want to do is separate some fact from fiction,” Ellis said.

Entergy Mississippi spokesman Checky Herrington said the company will answer questions about the financing plan and the need to expand power-generating capacity.

“We obviously still believe that based on what we’re seeing with regard to rising natural gas prices that this is the right step for Mississippi and our customers and remain committed to it as we work to answer questions that legislators and our customers have,” Herrington said.

Entergy Mississippi CEO Carolyn Shanks said in February that if the financing proposal becomes law and the company moves forward with the nuclear plant construction, Entergy might ask the PSC to approve a 1 percent rate increase to help pay for construction. She said customers’ bills would rise about $1 per 1,000 kilowatt hours used.

Opponents say utility customers could end up paying higher rates for projects that are never completed. Pamela Shaw of the Children’s Defense Fund said an increase in utility costs would be the same as “a tax on the poor.”

“Our concern is that it’s going to disproportionally affect low-income and poor families and they’ll have fewer dollars to meet their needs,” Shaw said Wednesday at the Capitol.

Entergy Nuclear applied in late February for permits to build a new nuclear reactor at its Grand Gulf plant in southwest Mississippi. Approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the Combined License Application would be one of the final steps before construction could begin.

Entergy officials said the company has not decided whether it will build the reactor, and the final application process will take years.

Mississippi Power announced in December 2006 that it was considering building a $1.8 billion plant in central Mississippi’s Kemper County. The plant would convert locally mined lignite, or “brown coal,” into a gas to generate lower-emission electricity.

The bill is Senate Bill 2793.