Meridian Star

Local News

October 16, 2011

Under Construction

Kemper County IGCC Plant

MERIDIAN —     The state-of-the-art new power plant that Mississippi Power is constructing in Kemper County will cover 3,000 acres, will cost an estimated $2.4 billion to build, and will create 260 permanent jobs, but the many lists of numbers associated with the project do little to convey its huge scale and immeasurable impact.

    The plant site itself is enormous, and is currently full of activity as workers lay the foundation and underground infrastructure. Surrounded by reservoirs and retaining ponds, teeming with fleets of CAT machinery and more than a dozen towering cranes, and centered around a structure that some employees refer to as "Stonehenge," the site is a city of steel parts, concrete, trucks, and mud.

    The site is 3,000 acres — that's nearly five square miles, more than 130,000 square feet, big enough to house around 1,700 professional soccer fields. A big hunk of that 3,000 acre site is taken up by a large reservoir that will be filled with gray water (leftover water from a water treatment facility) purchased from the City of Meridian, which will be used for cooling and other purposes. Next to the reservoir is a gigantic holding area filled with thousands of parts ranging from relatively small steel beams to lofty coal silos to gasifier parts that look like they came off the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Next to the holding area is "trailer row," where work trailers are set up for the many contractors, including 140 from Mississippi, working on the project.

    On the other end of the site, a long strip of land will become home to coolants such as nitrogen that will help keep the plant safe from fires. Along the side of the plant, next to Highway 493, is a retaining pond, the future site of a main entrance, and a parking lot that would put any shopping mall to shame. Along the other side of the site, there will be a coal storage facility that will hold the low-grade coal called lignite that will fuel the plant. The lignite will come from a mining operation nearby.

    All of those things are just the supportive elements to the plant. The power plant itself will be in the center of the site. The most important elements of the plant are the combined cycle, which is the part of the plant that most resembles a traditional power plant. The combined cycle is a steam turbine that, fueled by a combination of gas and coal, will generate electricity for Mississippi Power customers. Near the combined cycle will be the gasifier, which is what makes the plant different from traditional power plants. The gasifier will convert the lignite into gas, which will then be burned as fuel for the steam turbine. It will be the first commercial gasifier in the U.S. to use TRIG technology, which Mississippi Power says will make the gasification process far more efficient.

    Another essential part of the plant is its gas clean-up and by-products area, which is where waste, including 65 percent of carbon emissions, will be captured. Much of the captured carbon will be sold to oil companies who will use it to force residual oil out of spent wells.

    Also part of the 3,000 acre site, a lignite mining operation by North American Coal will provide fuel for the plant. Kemper County sits above billions of tons of lignite, a low-grade, high-moisture coal that is well-suited for gasification and is less costly and more stable in price than low-moisture coal.

    Not so cheap is the cost of constructing the plant. Mississippi Power and its parent company, Southern Company, estimate that the total cost of creating the plant will be as huge as the project itself - $2.4 billion. The Mississippi Public Service Commission approved a cost of up to $2.88 billion if the costs of materials used in building the plant increase.

    To pay for the project, Mississippi Power has raised its rates for power customers, saying that the cost savings of using lignite in an efficient gasification plant will more than make up for the rate hike later on. The company spent years justifying the rate hike to the public service commission, which initially approved the project only at a lower cost, but increased the amount to $2.88 billion in an appeal.

    But Mississippi Power says that, along with helping to defray higher electricity costs once its operational, the plant will create jobs both during construction and after it's online. Right now, about 700 are employed in the construction of the plant, but that number is expected to rise to 1,000 by the end of the year, and to go as high as 2,000 at peak construction. Once the plant is operational, 260 permanent jobs will be created between the plant itself and the accompanying mining operation.

    The $2.4 billion cost estimate includes the construction of the plant, planning and design, water and gas pipelines, equipment, materials, labor, and the lignite handling facilities. It does not include building the lignite mine, which will be operated by North American Coal and owned by Mississippi Power.

    The amounts of time, energy, and resources that Mississippi Power and Southern Company have put into the plant and into the TRIG technology it implements are also enormous. The company began to create designs for the plant in early 2008 and went through an involved process of receiving public service commission and department of environmental quality approval before beginning construction in mid-2010.

    Right now, construction of the foundation and underground infrastructure is ongoing, with just a few aboveground structures beginning to go up. The majority of aboveground construction will take place next year and in early 2013. When construction to the plant is complete, it will be a yearlong startup and testing period before becoming operational in May 2014. The entire process, beginning with design, will take more than six years.

    The plant is getting a lot of attention both for its economic impact and its environmental impact, both of which are sizable, and both of which have brought a combination of criticism and praise.

    The company has been criticized for raising rates to fund the construction of the plant, and praised for the jobs it will bring and the overall economic impact it will have on Kemper County and the surrounding area.

    The environmental impact of the plant will be significant, as with any coal power plant, but a vast improvement on traditional coal plants. Using gasification technology reduces many forms of emissions as compared to traditional coal plants, and the company will capture 65 percent of its carbon emissions (the percentage needed to be eligible for some of the federal grants the project has received). The captured carbon will ultimately be sequestered underground. The plant will also have zero discharge from the gray water it purchases from the city of Meridian, and the lignite mine will rebuild its spent mines with the goal of replicating the original state of the land on the surface.

    But there are still environmental concerns. Sierra Club has expressed numerous concerns, most notably concern over the ash the plant generates, and also points out that no coal operation is "clean coal" because even the cleanest coal power plants have detrimental effects on the environment. A detailed list of Sierra Club's concerns can be found on the Web at mississippi.sierraclub.org.

    For more information on various aspects of the Kemper County IGCC project, visit mississippipower.com.

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