U.S. Company Hopes for a Clean Future in Coal


By Maura Forrest

July 31, 2014

A U.S. power plant is set to become the first in the country to use “clean coal.” Mississippi’s Kemper coal gasification power plant, built by Southern Company, will use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to strip out 65 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground.

“The carbon footprint is essentially the same or maybe even less than a natural gas plant that doesn’t have carbon capture,” said Randall Rush, a Southern Company engineer, in an interview with The Guardian.

Some are saying the plant will prove that there is a future for coal in the American energy industry.

The Kemper project was touted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a model when the agency released tough new regulations last fall slashing the amount of greenhouse gases that new coal-fired power plants can emit by 40 per cent.

But others, including Southern Company itself, argue that the Kemper facility may not be easy to replicate.

Mississippi is rich in low-rank lignite coal, which means the plant can mine its own cheap fuel on-site. The facility plans to sell the captured carbon dioxide to nearby oil fields to pump more oil out of older wells, in a process called enhanced oil recovery. 

“The location of the Kemper County Energy Facility … makes the plant the right choice for Mississippi,” Tim Lelejdal, a Southern Company spokesperson, told The Guardian. But, he continues, the “facility should not serve as a primary basis for new emissions standards impacting on all new coal-fired power plants.”

The plant has not been cheap to build. So far, the price tag is over $5.5 billion, more than double the initial estimate. Mississippi Power customers are already paying 18 per cent more for electricity.

Kemper is not the first project to integrate coal-fired power plants with CCS technology. Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam project is expected to go into operation this year. Like Kemper, Boundary Dam is sitting on a coal mine and will sell carbon dioxide to be used in enhanced oil recovery.

If these projects are successful, they could ensure that coal will continue to be an important part of the energy mix in the U.S. and Canada. But many environmental groups say it’s time to stop investing in polluting fossil fuels.

“It’s expensive, it’s dirty, and it’s unnecessary,” Louie Miller, director of the Mississippi Sierra Club told The Guardian.

And in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Jeff Phillips, a manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, argued that the writing is on the wall for coal.

 “Unfortunately for Mississippi Power, they are out there at the bleeding edge of technology,” he said. “There’s a low-cost alternative, and it’s natural gas.”