An advanced coal project in Mississippi is now under greater scrutiny. Documents have come to light that show that the plant’s owner, Southern Co., concealed certain technical difficulties that the plant has been experiencing. It chose to keep such information under wraps to avoid regulatory criticisms.
That’s what the New York Times revealed, noting that it had gotten its hands on documents and recordings by one of the “Kemper” plant’s employees — a whistleblower named Brett Wingo. Mr. Wingo, along with others that the Times had interviewed, said that facility “understated” the project’s costs and timetable and that the system of checks and balances was sidestepped.
The story goes on to say that the incentive for doing so had been that Southern wants to keep its subsidies — totaling in the millions — and that revealing the technical issues would have undermined its noble goal, which is still to create a power plant that can capture carbon emissions and to inject them underground to enhance oil recovery.
“I’ve reached a personal tipping point and feel a duty to act,” Mr. Wingo wrote in a 2014 email, the Times reports, which was among several that he sent to officials of Southern Company and Mississippi Power, the state utility that runs the plant, alleging that the company had broken federal law and engaged in corporate fraud, the story says. “Hope is not a strategy. This is a high-profile project with many misguided enemies, so why give them free ammo?”
Others at Southern backed up Wingo’s claims. Wingo was fired in February 2016, the Times says, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has said that such a firing was illegal.
Advanced coal plants, or those that can capture the carbon and then bury it or use it to enhance oil recovery, is a technology that both Republican and Democratic administrations have supported. The power sector’s biggest success so far is Boundary Dam in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada, which started up in October 2014.
It is really the best hope for coal’s long term survival, especially in a carbon-constrained world. But the concept has run into technical, cost and political hurdles for years. The latest cost estimates on Kemper are $5.6 billion, up from the initial estimates of $2.4 billion. Taxpayers will pay half.
“Our best hope for the moment … is carbon capture, utilization and storage,” which takes the captured carbon and uses it for enhanced oil recovery, says Judi Greenwald, formerly with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and now with the US Department of Energy.
The goal, though, is elusive. Not only is the technology out of reach but it is cheaper — and less headache — to just build a combined cycle natural gas plant that also releases fewer emissions. That includes carbon.
Even the Obama administration is losing patience. The White House won’t participate in the much ballyhooed FutureGen 2, a plant that would have gasified coal, captured the emissions and buried the carbon. Meantime, the South Mississippi Electric Power Association has dropped out of Southern Company’s Mississippi-based Kemper facility, saying that it is too expensive.