Mississippi Power and its parent organization, Southern Company, have had what most people would generously call a “rough” couple of weeks. Under direct pressure from the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), utility executives have determined that the Kemper County Energy Facility currently under construction, which was supposed to be fueled by “clean coal,” will now burn only natural gas.
After burning through nearly triple the plant’s $2-plus-billion budget and falling years beyond its deadline for installing gasifier technology aimed at converting locally-mined lignite coal to clean-burning synthetic gas, Mississippi Power has now suspended what was virtually a singular effort in this country to develop clean coal technology. The decision came upon the direction of the PSC, which has signaled it intends to prohibit the utility from charging ratepayers to recoup the costs associated with the lignite gasification process and related assets.
However, the utility has also been able to generate some good news in the state, when last week it brought together nearly 60 state leaders, utility representatives and clean energy supporters to dedicate Mississippi’s largest solar energy facility. Along with project partners D. E. Shaw Renewable Investments and DEPCOM Power, Mississippi Power placed itself in the vanguard of clean energy in the region, promoting a $100-million, 52-MW facility that consists of more than 215,000 panels, covers 595 acres, and produces enough energy to power nearly 8000 homes, all without generating any emissions. On top of that, the utility has another 50-MW solar facility in Mississippi coming online later this year, and it is also on track to announce a 53-MW solar project in conjunction with the U.S. Navy.
The events in Mississippi underscore what policy makers are fast understanding – clean energy technologies like wind and solar offer vast, reliable and cheaper sources of electricity to the grid, which only 10 years ago was dominated by centralized power plants that, to this day, still pose the logistical problems of high costs, persistent maintenance, high carbon emissions and ash (particularly with coal-fueled facilities); and further, in the case of nuclear power, significant waste disposal challenges.
As pointed out in a report last month authored by the Analysis Group, the current transformation of our electric power system is being driven by market forces. Rapidly falling renewable energy costs, low natural gas prices, advances in technology, greater energy efficiency adoption and relatively flat demand for electricity is putting financial pressure on older, less-economic power plants, thereby leading to their retirement.
Very simply, the evolution is being brought about by market competition. As a result, energy resources on the grid are becoming much more diverse, and they are being capably managed in a way that ensures reliable electric power.
The events in Mississippi come just as the Energy Secretary Rick Perry is set to release – likely next week – an evaluation he requested in April of the reliability and market rules of the U.S. electric power grid. Given the Trump administration’s push for increased fossil fuels, including a questionably viable effort to revive a crumbling coal industry, renewable energy advocates fear the evaluation could be used to diminish federal and state policies that have promoted the role of wind, solar and other renewables in the U.S. power system.
However, any move to stem the rapid growth of renewable energy on the grid and replace it with coal would be a major policy mistake. Furthermore, any effort to set back clean energy sources that are now in high demand from U.S. cities, states and corporations would fail because it cannot reverse coal’s downward trend amidst the rise of renewables.
Since 2010, more than 250 coal units have retired. And while most of those were older (pre-1970) and smaller plants, in recent years utilities have been announcing the closure of larger, more recently built facilities, principally due to their failure to compete with other energy technologies, including renewables. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2017 reports nearly 90 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity could be retired between 2017 and 2030.
25x’25 urges policy makers at all levels – federal, state and local – to help utilities sustain the transition to cleaner sources of power. The change is offering huge benefits: strengthening our energy security, providing economic boosts (particularly in rural areas of America), lowering energy rates and contributing to cleaner air. Renewables are now a significant part of the nation’s balanced energy portfolio, improving grid reliability, reducing transmission losses and relieving grid congestion. Those who oversee the nation’s energy system should do their utmost to ensure we all can capitalize on the renewable energy opportunities that this transition now provides.