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December 29, 2012

Southern Co. faces risks on Miss. power plant

DEKALB — In the woods of east Mississippi, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co. is pouring billions of dollars into construction of a power plant that burns coal but would emit less carbon dioxide. It's a response to looming federal limits on carbon emissions as regulators try to curtail global warming.

Each day, as 2,600 construction workers toil away at Plant Ratcliffe in Kemper County, the big bet becomes more expensive. The projected cost is at least $2.8 billion, almost half a billion dollars above original expectations, and some estimates say it will go higher.

Legal challenges brought by the Sierra Club have led regulators to block the company from billing customers for the costs so far, although Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. got closer to that goal with a favorable lower court ruling earlier this month.

Southern CEO Thomas Fanning stands by the plant. He says Southern's own technology will mitigate its environmental impact and the need to exploit coal as a hedge against uncertainties in the future cost of natural gas, which is currently cheap and abundant.

But there are risks.

The Kemper plant is the most expensive project ever built by Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. The company promises completion in May 2014, but some engineers monitoring construction for state regulators warn the cost could reach $3.1 billion, and completion isn't likely until November 2014 at the earliest.

Those same engineers, with the firm Burns & Roe, say the plant's lynchpin coal-to-gas technology isn't certain to work.

Fanning says some setbacks at Kemper have been seen in the company stock price. Shares are down about 5 percent over the last year, but Southern's stock has closely tracked shares of other big utilities in that time.

Morningstar analyst Mark Barnett says he respects Southern's ability to manage big projects, but says Kemper might dent Mississippi Power's finances if costs keep mounting. "This is an outsized project for such a small utility," Barnett said.

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Mississippi could borrow $20 million to help Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. update its factory in Tupelo. In return the company would pledge to maintain at least 1,300 jobs and invest $140 million in the plant. Do you think this is a good investment on the state's part?

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