“THE INVENTIVE SPIRIT”

by Stephen Thomas, ©2017

(Jul. 6, 2017) —[Editor’s Note:  This article relates to another on the same topic published on March 31, 2017.]

It seems as though there is not enough money, time, organization, and/or know-how to move a 19th-century technology into the 21st century. Last Wednesday, June 28, 2017, Mississippi Power Company and its parent, Southern Company, announced the suspension of all work in coal gasification for the Kemper County Power Plant and will move the plant to natural gas operations. The Mississippi Public Service Commission (MPSC) issued a press release that reiterated the corporate announcement. This is very unhappy news on several fronts.

Coal gasification, a new wrinkle on the old wood gasification technology, shows a lot of promise for the clean use of coal. The coal is burned in such a way that no toxic waste gas is emitted. The resulting fuel is a synthetic gas, or syngas, which burns cleaner, and the small amount of carbon dioxide generated is piped to nearby oil fields where it is pumped “inescapably” deep underground.   That process enhances a more complete crude oil extraction.

The Kemper County Power Plant was built on top of a mountain of coal.  Natural gas is currently cheaper and the coal is not going anywhere.  Throwing in the towel by the corporate decision-makers may offer the best plan in the short term. A power plant dependent upon locally-sourced fuel, operating free of the vagaries of a pipeline, may prove to be genius in the future. But, for now this is not to be.

There has been a tremendous waste of capital if this cutting-edge technological endeavor is allowed to die. What has been “eating their lunch” is the extremely high costs of innovation and invention. Organizational factors linked to utility-company culture are certainly another issue.

To date more than $7.5 billion has been spent which is $4 billion over budget, and the MPSC made the suggestion that the work in coal gasification should be given up and the plant fired with natural gas. In this event, who will eventually absorb this $4 billion fiasco? The MPSC is probably making the best decision for the rate-payers. After all, it is pretty hard to get a project like this to completion on the backs of the people living in one of the poorest states in the U.S. And, do staid utility companies offer the best environment for the inventive spirit?

The naysayers include Sandy Buchanan, the executive director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who predicted that this effort could be a “debacle.”  Buchanan said,”There have been billions of dollars now spent and none of it has resulted in the so-called clean coal… It’s time for us to recognize this is a myth. It is absolutely clear that coal is a thing of the past for electricity generation.”

Buchanan’s group is opposed to the use of coal.

Opposition to the funding of this plant is completely understandable to the rate-payers who will eventually be saddled with the bill.

Opposition by groups, like Buchanan’s, could be considered myopic.

Is it time to give up on this project when our nation has invested huge amounts of treasure in less worthy ventures? Or, is it time to “double down” and identify those design and operational flaws that could yield a very efficient, non-polluting, and cost-effective technology?

Is it time for Mississippi Power and the Southern Company to relinquish their stake in this effort and let deeper pockets take over?

This technology holds a tremendous amount of promise and should not be walked away from. It is this writer’s opinion that President Trump, Governor Bryant, Senators, and Congressmen should acquire this facility getting out of the hands of the stodgy utility, organize it as a 501(c)3 (non-profit) corporation, put a visionary team in place, work out the problems, bring the technology online, sell electricity to the grid, and then proliferate/sell the technology globally in a way that will benefit the U.S. citizenry.

This technology can and should be developed.

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