March 3, 2018 11:02:18 PM
It's been a decade, but the Kemper lignite power plant debacle is finally over and done. Mississippi dodged a bazooka.
Last month, the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) settled with Mississippi Power Company (MPC) and its parent, Southern Company of Atlanta.
The settlement means the utility company can pass on $1.1 billion of Kemper costs to 187,000 customers, about $6,000 per customer. That's more than MPC deserves but it beats the heck out of the full Kemper price tag of $8 billion. That would have been $43,000 per rate-paying household - an impossible burden for one of the poorest areas of the United States.
The PSC believed that the risk of losing a lawsuit and the risk of MPC bankruptcy was worth the steep price of the settlement.
As a result of the settlement, rates will go down slightly. This is a much better outcome than the predicted 45 percent rate increase had the full cost of Kemper been absorbed into the rate base.
Kemper was a beast of the Baseload Act, a terrible piece of state legislation that allowed a utility company to start charging customers for new power plants before they were put into service.
Pity the poor ratepayers in South Carolina and Georgia. Because of the Baseload Act, they are on the hook for three unfinished nuclear power plants.
The V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina is half finished and may cost $25 billion. The Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia will cost about the same.
Unlike Mississippi, ratepayers in these states are legally on the hook for the full amount. That's because the public service commissions in those states deemed these projects "prudent" before they were completed.
Once deemed prudent, there is no going back. The ratepayers are on the hook. It will be devastating for these two states.
So how did Mississippi avoid this fate? PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley answered that question by publicly thanking Kelley Williams, Charles Grayson and Tom Blanton and myself during a speech at the Stennis Press Forum this week.
"Let me say this on Kemper," Presley told the crowd assembled at the top floor of the Capitol Towers building. "I don't normally call people out, but this case was the toughest case we ever had before the commission with a ton of press coverage. And I've said to the Wyatt Emmerichs of the world and the Kelley Williams, Charles Graysons and Tom Blantons and the others: Robust participation in this case made the commission do its job better. This participation helped us get to a resolution that not many people thought would be possible."
Earlier in the week, Presley called me personally to offer his thanks: "We wouldn't have gotten to this spot without your editorial courage and without Tom Blanton having performed extraordinarily as a private citizen. Nobody was covering Kemper until you started covering it. Until you got involved, I had no backup. None. It's the honest to God truth. We can all sit down there in a position to vote but if nobody knows the true facts of it, you can't persuade public opinion."
The reality is this: Newspapers exposed Kemper for what it was - a boondoggle of monumental proportions - early enough to prevent a prudency declaration by the PSC. That delay of prudence gave the plant time to fail before ratepayers got stuck. We saved them billions and billions of dollars, avoiding an economic albatross around the neck of our state that would have haunted us for generations.
If I never do another productive thing in my life, I have earned my degree. Too bad I don't get paid anything. In fact I lost hundreds of thousands in advertising and other lost business fighting this battle. I could write a book.
I ask one thing in return: Support newspapers. Keep subscribing. You may not immediately see the benefit of original reporting and original news gathering, but it can stymie corruption and save untold billions. Kemper is case in point. Facebook didn't do this. Newspapers did.
Like all things in Mississippi, my Kemper reporting began with a personal connection. My best friend Bob Crisler grew up with Flora native Chip Estes, an expert in the energy field. Over sushi at Nagoya, he persuaded me to look into the Kemper deal. One thing led to another.
In truth several people had bigger roles than me. PSC Brandon Presley deserves the most credit. He opposed Kemper from day one. It was obvious common sense to him that you could not scale a plant by a factor of 100 without Murphy's Law taking effect.
Tom Blanton put his own money on the line to file a lawsuit stopping the PSC. His lawsuit won at the state Supreme Court, halting prudency at a critical stage. Louie Miller, head of the state Sierra Club, was critical. Northside Sun's own Kelley Williams, with his relentless editorial onslaught of logic, played a huge role as did his technical colleague Charles Grayson. There were many more, all of whom donated their time, money and reputations for one thing alone: the good of the state.
Kelley Williams had been writing about Kemper on his Bigger Pie blog but he wasn't getting traction. When we started printing his columns, things changed. "There's something magical about print," he kept telling me that again and again, like a mantra.
Yes, there is something magical about print. It is my hope that this magic will allow newspapers to survive another 200 years, exposing corruption and fighting for a better government and society. We will have to change and adapt, but I believe it will be so.
Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
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