Miss. Power exec: Company needs to expand capacity

Published 1:44 am Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mississippi Power Co. president Anthony Topazi told state regulators Monday the company has a “strong and clear need” to increase its capacity to generate electricity and that a new $2.2 billion plant would help do the job.

The company proposes building a lignite plant to open by 2014 in the east-central part of the state. The three-member state Public Service Commission is holding hearings this week about whether the plant is needed.

Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co., says the plant would use a new technology that converts a soft coal called lignite into a gas that would fuel turbines to create electricity. Company officials say the lignite would be locally mined and would be cheaper than natural gas.

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The technology is known as IGCC, or Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle. Southern Co. announced in September that it would build the first IGCC plant in China, with operation expected to begin in 2011.

“This technology is really the future for coal use in the world,” Topazi told the PSC.

Mississippi Power is the first company trying to use a 2008 state law that allows utility companies to seek rate increases to help pay for construction of facilities before they’re open. Under the old law, a company had to wait until a facility was generating power to ask the PSC to approve a rate increase.

The PSC will hear testimony through Thursday from Mississippi Power, independent analysts and opponents, including other power companies. The commission will take comments from the public on Friday.

Opponents, including the Sierra Club, said the plant in Kemper County is unnecessary and that it would be dirty and expensive. The plant would be north of Meridian, near the Alabama state line.

During a news conference Monday outside the state office building where the hearing was held, Kemper County resident Barbara Correro said she worries about how the plant would affect her organic garden and the health of her fellow residents.

“I am 2.5 miles from the proposed site of this plant,” said Correro, who has worked as an oncology nurse. “No one is saying anything about the environment. No one talks about clean air, water, noise pollution or light.”

Mississippi Power has 23 generating units in south Mississippi. Six of them use coal and 17 use natural gas.

Topazi said natural gas prices are too unpredictable. He said about the company has secured 20 years’ worth of lignite mineral rights at a set price.

Four of Kemper County’s five elected supervisors were at the hearing in Jackson. Supervisors John Darnell and Christopher Cole said all five support the project as a way to boost the local tax base.

“We need all the jobs we can get,” Cole said during a break.

The PSC has set a tentative deadline of Nov. 10 to decide whether there’s a need for additional power generation in the state. If commissioners approve, they would conduct a second set of hearings in early February to gather information.